Back in the day, we didn’t have a choice. Field stations didn’t have wifi or cell phone access. Hell, those things pretty much didn’t exist – neither did practical laptops. We went into the field with our notebooks and sample bags and spent all of our time collecting data, talking, taking pictures, playing cards, and so on. Then, when we got back to civilization, we checked our email, called home, and spent months trying to decipher what was written in our note books. These days we check our messages between samples, we enter the data directly into our computers (immediately backed up on DropBox), and skype with the family on a daily basis. Progress?
This post was motivated by two experiences. First, while driving through the forest on the way back from camping in Trinidad last week, a colleague checking email on his phone received a message from a journal about a decision on his paper. No harm there, but it felt out of context for me, and - more to the point - it reminded me of the second experience. McGill has many field courses, and I have taught a number of them. One course is taught at the Gault Nature Reserve on Mt. St. Hilaire, the last remaining patch of primary forest in the St. Lawrence lowlands. I taught this course twice with a ten year gap between – and the experience was dramatically different.
|Gault Nature Reserve of McGill University.|
|When we were unplugged. "Adaptation is everywhere." "No dummy, adaptation is nowhere."|
|We wanted to have an asterisk behind our names with the note "each author thinks the other contributed less" - but the journal wouldn't allow it.|
What is the point of being in the field? If you are conducting research, then the goal is obviously to collected data. If you are teaching (or taking) a course, it is unarguably to observe and experience the natural world. Field courses allow yourself and your colleagues and students to sit back (or lean forward) to watch how insects pollinate plants or how cheetahs kill gazelles or how every tree in a tropical rainforest seems to be a different species. Observations like these have historically led to many new and novel hypotheses that have enriched our understanding of nature – think of Darwin watching and collecting Galapagos birds. Of course, such hypotheses can also be generated sitting in front of our computer but, even then, the best ideas are motivated and informed by previous observation made in nature. Darwin didn’t think of natural selection until he got back but the observations he made were critical to his subsequent insights. The "origin of all my views" was how he referred to Galapagos in his autobiography.
|Happily, my 10 summers of Alaskan field work were all 100% un-connected.|
OK, so I do realize you can still get these sorts of insights if you spend the morning in nature without your phone and the afternoon surfing the web or tweeting about your observations. However, I would like to make the case that you can do much better if you just leave the phone (and the internet access) at home or in your drawer.
Check out Marc Johnson's impeccable demonstration of how to take a texting break (1:28)
My first supporting argument is simply that you have more time for observing nature if you don’t spend half of it in front of your computer. Time matters – and we never have enough of it. Deep insights about nature require spending extended periods of time with nature: sometimes the key observations are rare (how often does a cheetah kill a gazelle?), sometimes they are variable (pollinators differ from the morning to the afternoon), sometimes you have to walk for hours just to see a decent proportion of the tree species. Then, after it gets dark , staying off the internet allows more time for discussion with students and colleagues (assuming you are not studying nocturnal critters). These conversations can wind in circuitous ways and touch on many topics, and it might take two hours of debate before the eureka moment comes or until you get so annoyed by someone’s argument that you actually decide you need to do something serious about it. (If I hadn’t argued with Gonzalez for hours over multiple days, we would not have felt the need to write our Whither Adaptation? paper referred to above.)
My second argument is that you simply think differently when you have access to the web. Without such access, two people can spend hours arguing about something that they might find the resolution to in seconds if they just typed it into Google. In this case, I realize that connectivity has an immediate short term benefit – you don’t “waste your time” arguing about something that you can solve in seconds. The problem, however, is that simply looking up the answer changes your thought process. Instead of trying to argue your way around a topic, thinking at it from different angles, and listening the logic of other people, you simply get out the phone and KNOW the answer. In short, connectivity kills the art of argument, and the art of argument is a critical component of scientific discourse and insight. Indeed, every paper you write is simply an argument for or against some hypothesis. Arguing verbally about science (or anything else) is a great way to hone your ability to make a compelling case by marshaling arguments and corralling logic in the absence of an ability to actually PROVE what you are saying.
|100% unplugged while camping for a month on this tiny island and doing stickleback field work in 1999.|
In field courses, I suggest that connectivity be eliminated while outside observing or measuring or counting or experiencing nature. Moreover, connectivity should be eliminated for extend periods of time even while inside. For instance, cell phones and wifi access could be off from the start of dinner until the late evening, say 9 pm at the earliest. This after-dinner period is the optimal time for discussion and argument.
|Thankfully, our field camps in Trinidad (here just last week) are not in the range of a cell phone signal.|
When doing short bouts of field work (maybe one-week or less), I suggest that cell phones and the internet should be off the entire time. I say “the entire time” rather than “until late evening” because it is relative straightforward to dictate behavior in the context of a course (as above) but it is much harder to do the same thing for ourselves. Who wants to constantly police one’s own cell phone use – like trying to diet with a Chinese buffet in your house? You might argue “But I need to be connected because I coordinate this or that or because such and such deadline is looming or because …” I disagree. Every time I visit Trinidad, I don’t check messages or the internet for the entire week. I simply figure out what deadlines are coming and complete the task before I leave. It is certainly true that I have, when finally checking email after a trip, often seen messages something like “Professor Hendry. I absolutely need such or such by tomorrow or I need you to ...[fill in an annoying administrative task here].” The funny thing is that ALL of these crises seem to get solved without me as soon as they get my email reply that says “In the field without internet.”
Of course, I do recognize that connectivity might be needed for longer periods in the field. I also realize that connectivity is necessary in some instances, such as for safety reasons, or that it is a goal in other cases, such as outreach activities, or that it is sometimes needed for research. But, if not, I encourage you to unplug for just a little while. You won’t regret it.