I’m not old enough to reminisce about phone trees and rare bird hotlines, though I’ve heard plenty of stories about birding’s raw old days. By the time I picked up my first pair of binoculars, dial-up was being phased out. I am proud to be of the internet generation, and birders have been connecting online as long as I can remember.
As I type this, two windows are open on my internet browser: A digest of Oregon Birder’s Online (OBOL, rhymes with “eyeball”) and eBird, where I just entered my morning’s sightings from the local sewage ponds. OBOL is a classic listserv with more than 1,000 members, dedicated to sightings and wide-ranging discussions about birding in Oregon, and has been around as long as I’ve been a birder. eBird is relatively new, the latest advance in the digitalization of our outdoor pursuit. I’m hopelessly addicted to both.
But I wonder sometimes what birding was like in those early days, before I was born. After all, watching birds is essentially an offline activity. What would it be like to escape from the internet for a while?
You have to go to the ends of the Earth nowadays to get away from Google. As it happens, this season I did just that: I spent two months on an expedition cruise ship in Antarctica, working as an on-board ornithologist and guide, from mid-November to mid-January.
The ship I was on, a Cold War-era Russian vessel, is a fortress-like island of no-nonsense adventure, designed for polar assignments. It takes about 90 passengers at a time for trips lasting between 10 and 18 days, but it’s not really a cruise ship. There is no swimming pool, no movie theater, no casino, no lounge chairs, no TVs, not even a Ping-Pong table. The ship has no cell service, and, most isolating of all, no internet access for passengers. On board, all of the main entertainments—presentations, meals, wildlife-watching from the bridge, socializing in the bar, not to mention the epic shore excursions—involve face-to-face interactions with other humans. For someone raised by the web, this was surreal.
Some people were surprised at the lack of connectivity on board, but few seemed to miss it. After each day’s adventures with penguins and icebergs, everyone sat around dinner tables and talked, uninterrupted by anyone whipping out an iPhone to look something up. Many people kept old-school, paper-and-pen journals of their journey. By the end of the season, I couldn’t imagine how I manage to spend so much time in front of my computer at home.
Every single person I asked said that, given the choice, they’d rather not have satellite internet in Antarctica—that it would change the whole vibe for the worse.
When I returned home in late January and caught up on email, OBOL’s forum was hosting a particularly snarky debate about eBird. Various veterans aired their grievances about the new digital era; some comments were specific, but others rambled on until the listserv’s moderator politely asked them to “get back to birding.” I sympathized with a few of the old-timers who said they had used one system or another—spreadsheets, databases—for so long that they’d never switch to something like eBird. It’s hard to change habits.
I know this, because I’ve lately been shifting in the opposite direction. This season in Antarctica taught me the joys of living off-grid, a lesson that I’m now trying to apply at home. There is something to be said for traditional media and regular, face-to-face interactions, and I think that birders, of all people, can appreciate the need to unplug once in a while.
Perhaps I’m getting old—I turned 28 this month—but I’m now on a campaign to streamline my digital life. I don’t spend much time on Facebook; I don’t use Twitter or any other social media; I don’t have an iPad; I have little interest in e-books or e-magazines; and I am forcing myself to shut down my email for parts of each day. Each of these things has noble uses, but, when I sit in front of a screen, it inevitably trap-doors down some dark rabbit hole. (For instance: The top link on my current Facebook feed is called “I am a Ukrainian, this needs to go viral,” followed by “Top 10 urban highways that deserve to be torn down.”)
Personally, I am a bit sad to see publications like North American Birds, the ABA Big Day and List Report, and the annual Christmas Bird Count summaries go strictly online. I enjoyed each of those in their paper forms, but can’t seem to motivate myself to read them digitally. I understand (and support) the need to stay current and save printing costs, but, for me, the online transition has disengaged my interest.
It’s ironic: Here I am writing for a web-only blog about the pitfalls of the internet. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not nostalgic about the analog days that I never lived through, rather suggesting that, moving forward, we birders concentrate on what we do best—enjoying the outdoors—in an age when the average American adult spends a stultifying eight hours a day in front of a screen.
You don’t have to visit Antarctica to realize that the world is a big, wild place, but my two months on a ship there was an eye-opening experience. I watched people connect with each other, and with the birds around them, in an incredibly focused, hands-on, distraction-free setting. I think that’s something we can all aspire to.
And now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to shut my laptop and head outside. I’m sure the first migrant Tree Swallows and Rufous Hummingbirds are arriving, and someone needs to go out there and find them—and then, of course, post the highlights for the rest of us.
Noah’s book, The Thing with Feathers, about the connections between bird and human behavior, comes out in March 2014—in both hardback and e-book.