Just as we have in the past, this August my wife and I took the kids out west for a vacation. These vacations have increasingly become something of a respite from the rhythm and hum of the modern digital life, but they never leave the beat altogether.
Last year we went to Yellowstone and lost all touch with modern communications. As I wrote last year, losing touch became a theme for that trip. A friend, Joshua Gans, informed me that at Yellowstone we had moved off the grid. I liked this phrase so much I used it in my automated email message this year. It read:
“I am sorry, but I will not be able to return your email quickly. I am doing field work in the mountains, observing life off the grid until August 30th. I will try to respond as soon as I can. Thanks for your understanding.”
The automated message obviously affects a tongue-in-cheek tone. Now that I am home, however, I have to say that I did, in fact, do some field work, and learn something about the Internet. I learned about the meaning of ubiquitous access, which is a popular phrase in Internet policy circles. My family’s vacation experience illustrates that ubiquitous access is far too ambitious a goal for policies in low density areas. There is just no reason to have Internet access in every location and all the time if partial access accomplishes enough.
That might sound a bit abstract, so let me say it more concretely. This year my family and I spent time in two locations, Arnold, CA, and Tahoe City, CA. Both are in the Sierra Mountains. (And, no, the town of Arnold was not renamed for the present governor…)
At our main residence in both locations my wife and I could not get mobile phone service (hence, no mobile email), but we found good DSL broadband access (and I brought along a laptop). Phone service also was spotty when we visited underground caves, walked next to tall trees, rode horses through a vineyard, toured cheesy ghost towns, braved white water on a raft, hiked at high elevations and high winds, and listened to the breeze echo off the glacial canyons. In short, we visited many places off the grid, but not all these places were off the grid.
You know what? We did not need constant connectivity. Sure, constant connectivity would have been convenient, but partial connectivity was sufficient for a satisfying experience. In other words, there would have been a gain from having ubiquitous access, but not much.
Let me illustrate. (more…)