Last winter, I spent three days as a guest of the Yancey family, owners and operators of Boulder Hut Adventures in British Columbia’s southern Purcell Mountains—one of the early backcountry skiing lodges built by a pioneer of the backcountry tourism industry in BC, the late Art Twomey.
We had dreamy conditions: crystalline skies, no wind, temperatures that pushed a bracing -18 degrees Celsius and decent snowpack stability that allowed us to get after the goods during our all-too-brief stay.
Our trip also landed at a time when the Yanceys were at a crossroads. They were deciding whether to introduce openly accessible wi-fi for guests. One night, Mark Yancey held an informal poll at the well-worn dinner table, around which sat a handful of professional Instagrammers whose stock in trade is, obviously, social media.
You might think it was a crowd overwhelmingly biased in favour of Internet access all the time, everywhere. However, surprisingly, the opinions were unanimous—don’t do it.
Maybe the opinions weren’t surprising. Most thoughtful adults recognize that society has an increasingly unhealthy relationship with technology. We are becoming slaves to filtering life’s experiences through the lens of Instagram, Facebook and other platforms. So pervasive has it become, that an experience not instantly shared is an experience that didn’t actually happen. Today social media response is an almost mandatory stamp of affirmation.
If you don’t think technology is a problem, ask a teacher at your local high school. For many schools, policing students’ use of and access to technology has become job-one for administrators and teachers. My brother is a high school teacher and he told me of a parent who came to a parent-teacher interview with one question: “How’s Johnny doing with his phone?”
Simon Sinek, the popular British-born, American-educated marketing consultant and motivational speaker, gave a recent talk about the mysteries of understanding Millennials. It went viral in a big way, striking a universal chord because Sinek distilled our use—I mean overuse—of technology down to its basics. Every time we hear that cheerful notification from our smartphones, we receive that little hit of endorphin not dissimilar to the way an addict gets a rush from injecting or snorting. It sounds harsh, but it’s a powerful drug that is fleeting and ultimately leaves us feeling a little hollow inside. That’s why, Sinek argues convincingly, society should recognize our obsession with technology for what it is, an addiction; one that has made Mark Zuckerberg’s personal fortune soar to an obscene $70 billion.
Would you put a bottle in front of an alcoholic then tell him not to touch it? No, you’d remove the temptation altogether. And it’s not just a Millennial issue—many of us grown-ups are addicted as well. Go to any place where humans congregate and look around—the majority of people are splitting their attention between conversations with the flesh and blood around them and their Tinder accounts, or whatever their digital toxin of choice is.
It would be disingenuous to misrepresent myself. I’m no early adopter but I’m also no anti-technology Luddite. In fact, by the time I finish writing this column I’ll have probably checked my phone at least five times (Awesome! I got 10 more likes on my Instagram post!). Yup, I know, I have a problem.
In 2014, Parks Canada sparked a firestorm of debate when it announced plans to bring wi-fi hotspots to campgrounds, even in places as remote as Baffin Island’s Auyuittuq National Park. Have park managers not heard about that 21st century condition called “nature deficit syndrome?” The technocrats at Google will have their convincing arguments in favour, how Internet access will serve as an educational tool and enhance visitors’ interactive park experience. No, people will sit around in RVs messaging friends and sharing on their social media platforms. (I’ve never seen an Instagram of a larch tree ablaze in autumn colours that beats actually hiking into Larch Valley and seeing them in real time, unfiltered.)
I won’t waste space talking about all the benefits that the Internet and social media affords us; those benefits are well documented and I’ll be the first to admit mobile technology makes my working life possible. Rather, it’s time instead to start a discussion around defining a new paradigm of balance between life lived and life experienced and shared through the filter of technology. The problem is, even the best intentioned among us have a tough time saying no to technology. If it’s there, we’ll use it.
I experienced it first hand at Selkirk Mountain Experience a few years ago. Founder Ruedi Beglinger had acquiesced to societal pressure and did his small part to deliver Google to every corner of the globe. But I could tell by the expression on his face that it was killing him to see guests huddled over laptops and Smartphones in the designated wi-fi access lounge, instead of doing what backcountry skiers have done in huts since long before the well-intentioned nerd Sir Tim Berners-Lee re-envisioned the world in 1989 and launched the World Wide Web. That is, sit around a table or woodstove, sipping schnapps or some other gut warming beverage, swapping stories, embellishing, sharing laughs, making new friends (or not) and having one of those things called a conversation—with a human, not a device.
I never heard the outcome of the Yancey family’s Internet debate, but I hope the answer was no. In this busy, interconnected digital world, places like Boulder Hut are faced with an unprecedented opportunity to be what society desperately needs: Internet-free sanctuaries of pure, blissful digital detoxification.