Since 2001, I’ve spent the better part of my summers in wonderful, amazing locations for weeks at a time. From the Bay of Fundy (home to 10-12m tides that come in and out twice a day), to a 4000-foot active volcano with about 2 million seabirds in the far western Aleutian Islands, to the largest Atlantic puffin colony in North America, I’ve soaked up the natural world.
But I fear the experienced I had (and helped others have) is in peril. The threat, you see, is nearly everywhere and spreading fast. It’s teh internetz.
Now before you accuse me of being a Luddite, and throwing my sabots into the cogs of progress, hear me out. I’m a frequent (habitual?) user of online tools (like this blog), and I have an unhealthy relationship with email checking (which I really need to work on, I know). But despite these, when I find myself on a seabird island, or on a boat at sea, or waking up at 3am to catch swallows underneath highway overpasses, anything connected to the internet is far from my mind.
Aeons ago, when phones were something that were attached to a wall with a giant wheel of numbers (and often a little but after this), the evenings in field camps were often spent in conversation, playing cards, engaging in “extra-curricular” natural science, reading, writing, thinking, exploring (or playing glow-in-the-dark kitchen-spatula ping pong). I loved this “free” time in the field, because it meant I could often catch up on books I didn’t have (find) time to read during the academic year. (In a distinctively non-Luddite approach, I find carrying an e-Reader much easier than my former cadré of 15-20 books, especially when landing/loading field camps.)
In 2005, I recall one particular discussion about whether we should haul out the old 1970s vintage TV from the closet, and try to find the VCR to hook it up and watch Pirates of the Caribbean one rainy evening (we were at an active light station with ample power, and living in an old Coast Guard house). “Really? Watch a movie in the field?” I recall one team member saying as if the concept was totally foreign. Because it was. In the end, we did manage to drag the TV and VCR out, find the video cassette, and spent the night laughing and eating popcorn.
Double-click, then swipe and tap
Fast forward a few years. Now, nearly everyone has their own laptop, and their own TV shows and/or movies downloaded or on DVD. Many field camps (especially those run by large organizations) are now equipped with internet connections, if not wifi and full-on cell coverage, and many evenings are spent sitting around the common room checking email, and basically being “in the office”.
For me, being in the field is an immersive experience. Whether my tent is flapping at 3am in 40-knot winds (forcing me to get up, go to the temporary building, and read Barney’s Version by headlamp), or the auklets flying in at sunset are putting on what we affectionately called “The Show”, it’s all part of being in the field.
It ain’t all bad
Things like smart phones can be used extensively by those in the field, epitomized by this recent paper by Amber Teacher. But as has often been said, with great power comes great responsibility. Sure the phones can be used to figure out a bird call, or connect with experts through Twitter, but they can also be used for email, and text messages – the very things I enjoy not having in the field.
I’ve heard from more and more colleagues that this year, they’ve resolved to spend less time online. I achieve the same goal through immersive field work. And I’ve been fairly lucky so far in that my camp-mates have all generally shared a similar philosophy when it comes to personal technology in the field. But now, movie nights are more common, and on our research island in Newfoundland, there’s cell coverage, which is fantastic for field safety and coordinating with folks in the mainland and keeping in touch with family. I wonder how long, though, before evenings spent around the table playing Dutch Blitz are behind us.
And I, like many I’m sure, enjoy the respite from being instantly contactable through myriad channels (email, phone, office, Twitter, Facebook, telegraph station). I love writing and outlining new projects in the field (particularly in the mornings with a pot of tea and CBC Radio before everyone else is up).
So how do you approach the non-science parts of field camp life, and the increasing presence of technology?
Auriel Fournier said:
I consider myself lucky. I have good cell coverage of all my sites in Missouri (USA) so we can get ahold of everyone which makes safety less of a concern but we don’t have Internet at any of our field houses, and the reception in the houses is iffy. So you can stay in contact with loved ones and do what needs doing but we still spend a lot of down time playing board games or cards or watching Big Bang theory together on my computer.
I’ve defiently done field work where that wasn’t the case though and it does lose something. Though I’ve been on jobs I did not like and the Internet was my salvation from unpleasant bosses/coworkers so I could just relax and face them again the next day. So I guess it really all depends.
I have mixed feelings about technology at field sites as well. The seasons I spent in a tent in Yosemite pre-cell phone age, or at a remote site in SE Nicaragua with no internet and very limited phone or electricity, were some of the best field seasons I’ve had. I did enjoy being more tuned in to the world around me and the people I was with, and being unplugged and unreachable. Then again, it wasn’t so great when my incoming field assistant was days late because she had to evacuate for a hurricane, and I had no clue where she was or what had happened.
At the other end of the spectrum, I do hate to see people tethered to their laptops in their air-conditioned offices at La Selva or Barro Colorado Island, and I was often guilty of it myself. It’s like you have one foot back home and one at your field site, and you miss a lot. But there were designated lounges/social areas at both sites, and I do feel like many people at least made an effort to hang out outdoors and socialize. I also enjoyed being able to keep in touch with friends and family back home, and felt safer having my data backed up outside of the humid (electronics-killing) tropics. Not to mention physically safer: I’ve never been so happy to have cell phone access as when my field assistant was bit by a fer-de-lance in Panama. I don’t want to think about what might have happened had someone been bit at my remote site. So, maybe the technology itself isn’t so bad if we can learn to tear ourselves away from it when in the field (easier said than done, I know!).
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