Technology isn't always the answer.
January 8, 2011

A few nights ago I was watching a police reality series that follows homicide detectives on the job. It seems a man was murdered and when detectives first showed up to analyze the crime scene, one of them determined the man's cell phone had been stolen. As best I could tell, the detective came to that conclusion because the victim had no cell phone on his person. I immediately thought that if I ever end up in this unfortunate man's place they will determine that my cell phone was stolen too, because I don't own one.

Nearly everyone says a strong connection between a photographer and his or her subject is required if great images are to be made, and I agree with that statement. Back in the late 1970s and earlier such a connection happened automatically if you were photographing in any area that could be considered remote. How could it not? You had to find your way around with paper maps, and most dirt back- roads and trails were neither signed nor present on the maps. You had to learn where the roads went, take notes, look for landmarks, and even use a compass. Gasp! Doing all of this took a lot of time, but it completely immersed you in the place. After a while you truly knew it like the back of your hand. Communication to and from tiny rural towns was far more difficult, and communication from outside a town was simply impossible. Normal people didn't have cell phones, and they wouldn't have worked out there at the time regardless. Most little motels didn't even have phones in the rooms. You had to go to the lobby or a pay phone to make a call, and calling long distance was really expensive. And of course the Internet didn't exist. Fleeting thoughts about things back home became less frequent as the days passed, and the place you were in became your entire world, both physically and mentally. Stretches of nearly a week without seeing or talking with another person weren't uncommon if you were in the backcountry, and most of a day with no human contact was the norm when working out of motels in little desert towns. I find it amazing that many people have never had a similar experience, and worse, couldn't tolerate it. But electronic connectedness is the current norm in a world where only abnormal people don't have cell phones and texting is as automatic as breathing. The fact is that cell phones, the Internet, GPS, and other technologies have in many ways made it harder for people to relate to or connect with the world of nature.

Getting old isn't always great, in fact it hardly ever is, but I'm glad I developed real connections with many of the places I photograph when there were few distractions and no real choice in the matter. Many of these places feel like home to me, partly because of the work it took to figure out what's there, and the fact that there were no distractions in doing it. I realize I can be connected to almost anyone from almost anywhere, I can afford a phone, and I know they can be turned off, but I simply don't want one. I want to be wherever I am, doing whatever I can, with whatever I've got, even if it's really inconvenient once in a while. I suspect that seeing something like the northern lights has a lot less personal impact if your insurance agent decides to call while you're standing there in awe of the sight. And perhaps it's a personality defect, but when I'm experiencing a dramatic moment in the wilderness I have no urge to pick up the phone I don't have to immediately let someone else know about it. I'd rather relay the stories later on, maybe over a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Most of all, I couldn't feel the like the only person on earth looking out over a vast wilderness with over 4.08 billion* people available through a gizmo in my pocket. I suppose one can't miss what one never had, which is yet another reason I never want a cell phone. Connectivity in the wilderness does bring with it a certain safety factor, but access to instant communication, instant information, and instant help whenever it's needed can make a grand wilderness experience a bit more like a "visit" to some virtual place on the Internet, where anything can be done with a mouse click and nothing has consequence beyond a reboot. No thanks.

I confess to using GPS for a few years now. There's one in my vehicle and I use a handheld version when hiking in remote spots where trails either don't exist or are hard to find. Together, a GPS and Google Earth can do everything but hike there for you. This has made it much faster and easier to find the places I want to go, but on many occasions I've honestly thought that it's just too easy. Anyone can find their way to any place with the tools available now, and everyone does. That helps explain why some of the most remote areas in America are being trampled to death. Regardless, where is the sense of accomplishment in finding a "hard to find" place when no place is hard to find? Where's the sense of adventure without the possibility of failure? GPS has indeed removed the anxiety about getting lost, and I'll admit to having had some of that. Ah, that safety thing again. But even that anxiety played a role in wilderness experiences of the past. At least a GPS doesn't allow your insurance agent to interrupt you in the middle of capturing images, unless it's built into your cell phone.

I'm sure no one will give up GPS, cell phones, or other technologies because of this essay, and that really wasn't the point. But realizing the impact of technology on our lives can help us master it instead of being a slave to it. Perhaps a few phones and other gizmos will spend some extra time turned off while their owners revel in beautiful places making wonderful images. And don't forget to turn off your camera once in a while too, so you can just sit on a rock and soak in your surroundings. It may be one of the best things you can do to improve your images.

Happy shooting!


P.S.: I don't dislike people with cell phones unless they're obliviously weaving down the freeway next to me while talking on one, or speaking loudly enough for the whole restaurant to hear while I'm trying to enjoy dinner. In fact my wife has a cell phone and we get along just fine. And yes, there are ways in which various technologies help people connect with the natural world. There is even an iPhone app that can help identify wild birds, both visually and by their calls. I don't deny that's a pretty cool thing, and it would've saved me from misidentifying a rufous-winged sparrow once. Even so, I'll live with the shame and just keep using my old Audubon bird books. You know, the ones made of paper.
*Approximately 4.08 billion people have a telephone.

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