90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Tuesday, July 10, 2012

‘Nature And Technology Need Not Be Kept At A Distance’


Here’s the scenario — you’re on a hike in the wilderness, a mountain or remote beach, and you run into that person — the one who’s staring down at a smart phone, sending tweets and listening to music.

Author Walter Kirn says he is that guy, and he understands the reactions of horror and disgust he gets, because he knows that for most of his fellow Montanans there is a sacred and inviolable boundary between the outdoors and electronic communications.

But in a recent piece in Outside Magazine, Kirn argues that technology can enhance your wilderness experience, just like a cold coca cola can enhance your experience on the beach. “Nature and technology need not be kept at a distance,” he writes.

“What is this religion of the outdoors that requires it to be like a church?” Kirn said to Here and Now‘s Robin Young. “Nature does not just exist for us to forget, as a kind of spa. We have a legitimate reason to be there, and when technology allows us to be there, we should thank it for its welcome, not worry if we have broken some puritanical rule.”


  • Walter Kirn, novelist and essayist

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • J__o__h__n

    As long as the device is on mute, who cares?  Save your outrage for the morons texting during movies or talking on cell phones during concerts. 

    • Kim

      Amen. If he wants to spend his time using electronics, it’s fine as long as I don’t have to hear it. Blasting with his mini-speakers or inflecting those annoying dings on other people… no. It’s up to him what he wants to miss while he’s tweeting instead of actually experiencing nature.

  • Pamcarve

    Playing a birdsong from a device, especially during the height of breeding season, which it is now, induces a territorial response and puts severe stress on birds that should be concentrating on raising young.  It is, in effect, the equivalent of “crying wolf.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/alejandrorubio Alejandro Rubio


  • Echoe3

    “As long as the device is on mute, who cares?  Save your outrage for the
    morons texting during movies or talking on cell phones during concerts.”
     or texting while driving

    amen brother

  • Linda Evans

    I just listened to the wonderful story with Walter Kirn, mixing nature with technology and loved it!  I have to say, in his defense, that yes…nature is definitely the best place for meditation, inspiration, and contemplation but it should not be the only one.  Those concepts, being entirely mental, can be experienced in any scenario.  Therefore, to deny one of using a device so wonderfully designed to help us communicate our feelings and thoughts in the very environment that inspire us is, in itself, a religion.  I love sitting with my laptop, watching the water on the lake where I live, and jotting down thoughts that come to mind as I admire God’s wonderful creation.  Guess we, as humans, just get too compartmentalized in our thinking.  Thanks for the story.

  • David in Lowell

    A acquaintance of mine, whose husband’s family owns a “gentleman’s tree farm” in Vermont where they all spend summer vacations, once extolled how beautiful the state is, and its acre upon acre of unspoiled nature. She, who came from privilege and married into greater privilege, viewed Vermont as a pristine playground.  I bit my tongue then, but I had lived in Vermont for a time, though eventually left the state.  To me, who didn’t come from privilege, Vermont was a place with few jobs, little resources, and long drives requiring a lot of gas money to get between work and home.  I feel that people who define nature as something separate from humanity are often the most sheltered, and they need that dichotomy because it somehow, mentally, reinforces and maintains their advantages.  People, and their triumphs and mistakes and technology, also come from nature, and are nature, and are not ever separate from nature.

    • jefe68

      Next time you see them mention what they are looking at is second and third growth.
      Almost all of the trees in Vermont and most of New England were cut down.
      New England was deforested by the time of the Civil War.

  • Jakvox

    Stop anyone on the trail and you’ll find
    that they are loaded down with technology; hiking boots, GPS,
    sun glasses, insect repellant, sunscreen, wrist watches, cell phones,
    flashlights, specialized clothing, high tech backpacks, etc, etc.
    If a new piece of technology gets people outdoors, and doesn’t harm
    the environment, that’s a good thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alejandrorubio Alejandro Rubio

    Because there’s only one way to experience anything.  Ever.  And it’s my way.  Right?  LOL  Just teasing you.  It sounds like this gentlemen balances a lot of things, including communicating, meditating, giggling, savoring, and more.  Pretty nice.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/MQ3UBH3LLKO7ACXSWHGJMARD3M Steven

    When we have acoustic guitar evenings with friends, any nearby frogs love to chime in.

  • Jillfrazier

    Go walter! So silly anyone would be bothered by this. Live and let live. Think it’s great.

  • http://twitter.com/senigma senigma

    Moving from an urban environment to rural Alaska had a two fold affect, one was that because connectivity is limited and tenuous, I find I appreciate it’s usefulness all the more. More importantly, that I can be outside that bubble of connectedness, gives much greater appreciation of the enormity of nature and my place in it. The added bonus is that I am spared people like Mr Kern, who selfishly insist on inflicting their addiction to electronic companionship.

  • RB

    This issue reminds me of a discussion I heard on NPR a couple of months ago. That topic was a debate about tweeting during live performances. The anti-tweeting speaker was aghast and gave as a example the fact that people throughout theater history (ancient Greeks, Shakespeare audiences, etc.) didn’t tweet, ergo it should be severely punished now. I laughed out loud! I don’t doubt that some people (hopefully a minority) in every audience everywhere during all of history would have tweeted if the technology had been available. I don’t think human nature has changed much.

  • Paulat5

    I wholeheartedly agree with Walter.  About two years I went with about a dozen friends into the mountains of eastern Arizona for a camping trip.  We passed the town, out the dirt road, past the last house and last power pole and found a peaceful spot on a river at the base of a cliff.  I was in awe of the beautiful bluffs, the mountain goats, the commoradity.  I took my blackberry, shot a few pics, emailed them to my sons in the US, Caribbean and South America.  I felt they could in a small way be with me.  I don’t tweet, but I do stay in touch with family directly and friends on facebook.  Electronics complement nature.

  • Hmroche

    There are so few precious places left in this overdeveloped world to get away, be at peace with unadulterated nature, and to clear your mind with the rhythems and sounds that abound in the mountains and woods. I work on a computer for 8 hours a day and afterward feel so drained that the only thing that brings be back into balance is going for a walk in the woods – where there is no technology. This is the only time I can leave my cell phone at home – and without its presence, not subconsciously worry about deadlines or missing a call.  I make a living with technology, and must have a healthy respect for it – but I think there is a line to where it is acceptable and where it becomes ridiculous and intrusive. I think this upset me so much because my own personal peace feels threatened… I feel like there’s nowhere I can go to get a break from the latest “must-have” technology.

  • Dkanenh

    While I appreciate Kirn’s comments about nature inspiring his writing (I’m a writer who often sits outdoors with my laptop) and his insightful, well-crafted tweets, the idea that he sits on the beach watching a movie on his IPad makes me crazy. I run outdoors with an iPod and I often turn it off because it interferes with the very reason I run outdoors on a beautiful day: to get away from my laptop, work, family schedules and other obligations and just be with myself. Our gadgets are helpful in many ways but why can’t we just enjoy ourselves, indoors or out, without feeling compelled to turn to technology as another distraction?

  • LiliT

    Taking technology into the field is all well and good, when there is no one else around and you have the whole wide world to yourself.  Very different when lots of other people are doing the same thing… .     It’s the same for playing bird songs.  Yes it’s cool because you can bring the birds down for easier viewing and also for identification purposes but……….when done on a regular basis….studies have proven that it is not beneficial, and more likely than not,  harmful to breeding populations.
    All of this is fine when there is lots of nature and few people.  That scenario is changing rapidly. 

    Cells phones and driving.  A terrible mix.  New technology appears seamless and so unobtrusive.  But once it’s mainstream its very difficult to control. 
    Sorry but I think this story is pointless. People are bringing their devices into all kinds of inappropriate places.  There is no point in encouraging.  It will come regardless.  Nothing is sacred anymore.  Visit Asian and Latin countries if you want to experience the great outdoors with hordes of people all doing their own ‘thing’ with no limitations.  

    Don’t  forget  extra batteries …

  • Mtoldman33

    There are two drawbacks to this approach; 1. The problem with users who cannot turn off the sound from their devices and impose on the rest of us. and 2. It seems that these people who insist on being connected always will force the installation of the infrastructure to allow this continuous connectivity with no respect for true wilderness.

  • Mkinn

    Really? Get a grip! You stay on your side of the street, and I am SURE Dr. Kirn will stay on his side. He is not breaking any laws, and if your indignation, moral outrage, delusional belief system mattered to ANYONE at all, (It doesn’t) your stress is in your own head, NOT HIS!  You have absolutely NO control over what goes on in anybody else’s brain! GET OVER YOURSELF AMERICA!  I think it is a perfectly normal thing to do, and if he is stuck with his head down in his electronic gizmos, it’s HIS loss, not yours!

    • jefe68

      Your post is pretty funny. It really speaks to the mindset of selfishness.
      It’s not about me or anyone else. It’s about having some sense of place and being able to think beyond one’s own little selfish world. People go into the wild and on hikes for a reason or many reasons. One is to get away from people doing what this man does.
      It’s not about my side of the street or yours. It’s about respecting the idea of being in a place and thinking of others and not your selfish little world. In my view this man suffers from digital crack. I see this all over the place, people who just can’t stop using their devices.

  • citizen45

    While I  listened to this guys story I could help think that this is the same who would purchase miles of pristine beach property and limit access to only his family. 

  • Twinkbait

    Walter reminded me of the people I have to listen to talking on their phones as if they’re the most important/only person on the planet while I’m at the airport, a restaurant, waiting in line somewhere…etc.

    One of the few places I can enjoy not listening to anyone on the phone (usually) is in the wilderness or on a plane (still, but for how much longer with folks like Walter who don’t appreciate enough my perspective).

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

September 15 25 Comments

A Call To Reject Corporal Punishment As Part Of Black Culture

An incident of child abuse by an NFL player has raised questions about the use of corporal punishment as a form of discipline in the African-American community.

September 15 26 Comments

Would You Pay To Get Your Kid Into A Top College?

A San Francisco company charges parents for a consulting package based on the odds their student will get into a certain university, with prices up to a million dollars.

September 12 9 Comments

Senator: Arab Countries ‘Need To Step To The Plate’ In Fight Against ISIS

Mark Begich (D-AK) is one of the few members of Congress speaking out against a key part of President Obama's plan for fighting the Islamic State.

September 12 Comment

Ecuadorian Drilling Damage Inspires Documentary

An American and an Ecuadorian are inspired to help Ecuador heal from decades of drilling and oil spills.