Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here, thinking about the days when I had to walk through the garden and up the hill to my dad’s “office” (a converted goat shed) to connect to the internet. After the long beeeeep boop dum da dum of the dial-up connection had completed, I’d log onto AIM (squeaky door opening) and chat with my fr-- I mean, do my homework.
Today, in contrast, Wi-Fi repeaters beam internet access around our indoor-outdoor living space in Big Sur. I can pick it up in my office, in my bedroom and even respond to emails as I wander between the two. I’m rarely more than a few feet from my smartphone, and that phone is rarely disconnected from the internet. Sure, the connection’s not fast enough to stream a movie or reliably FaceTime with friends, sometimes I get booted out of work meetings and it’s more expensive than the (faster) options available in urban areas, but the improvement, just in the past 10-15 years of my lifetime, is stark.
Improvement. Seen one way, that’s what our technological advances are, and what it will be when Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet, which I wrote about for the latest print edition of the Weekly, brings accessible high-speed internet to the Big Sur coast. The current level of connectivity in Big Sur allows me to do my job from here, and I’m grateful for that. Faster service will increasingly open this option to other professionals—I, mercifully, do not do a lot of Zoom meetings. This, as Big Sur resident and IT professional Kyle Evans pointed out when I interviewed him for this week’s story, could have the positive benefit of diversifying the local economy away from tourism, an industry that abruptly crashes any time Highway 1 slides or a wildfire ignites. Better internet access will be good for the kids too—studies have shown that poor internet connectivity contributes to students falling behind in school. The pandemic, with its attendant increase in people working and learning from home, has highlighted these challenges shared by rural areas.
Still, what’s the cost of this improvement? What’s the cost of living in a world with connectivity everywhere? Among many locals and visitors alike, Big Sur is prized for being remote and disconnected—a place to “unplug” from modern life. But is it weird to fetishize unplugging? It’s also an incredible place to stargaze, and there’s legitimate concern about the impact of a massive “constellation” of Starlink satellites on the night sky. (For its part, Starlink has been actively working to dim the satellites—astronomers are hopeful about the measures that have been taken.) Are there other impacts of this technological development that we should stop to consider?
We know that how we interact with the internet impacts how we interact with (and in) the “real world,” and not always in positive ways. What might Big Sur lose if its residents claim higher-speed internet, and how does this stack up against what those residents, and the community more broadly, might stand to gain?
I can’t answer those questions for all of us, but I can share something I learned from my years spent reporting on tech companies and the people behind them: With technology, it’s often too easy to think that because we can, we should. But those are separate questions. Sometimes, the answer to “should we?” is going to be a resounding yes. Other times, it might be a no. But we need to remember to ask the question.
For my part, maybe I’ll start by simply leaving my phone behind more often.