To preserve Earth's treasures, digital silence is golden
There are beautiful, undisturbed places in the world. You do not have to catch 'em all
Column Social media has made it easy to create large communities and to communicate with them instantly. The downside is that when those communities cross over into the real world, crowds of people can cause real harm regardless of their intent.
I recently returned home from holidays on the Island of Hawai'i, where I had the opportunity to experience many of its delights, including the dizzy-making heights of the telescopes arrayed across the 4,200m summit of Mauna Kea. I also got a chance to take one of the most beautiful hikes on the whole of the island: a trek down a steep 250m switchback trail to a black sand beach threaded with the golden gleam of pyrite crystals.
Sounds lovely, doesn't it? At the top of the trail the ranger on duty gave my traveling party three instructions: be careful on the descent; stay well away from the ritually forbidden kapu areas at the bottom; and finally, don't share any of our photos of this idyllic spot on the internet.
That's right, the ranger insisted. We want to keep this place undiscovered.
I suddenly understood: the site lies a fair distance from the resorts, golf courses and luxury spas that dot the island. To get there requires a somewhat hair-raising drive over the oldest of the island's five volcanic cones. Not everyone is going to hear about this place and, even if they do, fewer will want to make the journey. These barriers keep visitor numbers down to a manageable few hundred a day – probably all the trail can sustain without disintegrating under the pressure of all those boots and runners.
If an endless series of photos of this natural wonder ended up posted to Instagram or Facebook feeds or Twitter, it would become one of the "must-see" spots for every Hawai'ian tourist. The site would quickly be overwhelmed and would probably need to be closed to protect its accessibility. This "invisibility" preserves it. Those who know about it – I was taken by locals – enjoy it, but don't talk it up. They collude in keeping silent, in order to keep it theirs.
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We learned what can happen with uncontrolled viral sharing of places back in July of 2016. Pokémon Go had just been released, and everywhere crowds of young people gathered to catch, train, and test their Pokémon. At the postage-stamp sized Peg Paterson Park in the Sydney suburb of Rhodes, game designer Niantic had conveniently placed three Pokéstops in close proximity – the cluster soon discovered by a band of players. Those players promptly messaged friends, who quickly came by. They then messaged their own friends, who came by, and messaged their friends, etc.
Within a few hours Peg Paterson Park had filled with a thousand young people, all pleasantly enjoying their game. However, this gathering happened at 11pm – and a thousand people, whatever they're doing, will make a racket. They kept the residents of the surrounding apartment blocks awake. Residents dropped water balloons onto the crowd, in an effort to get them to disperse; finally, the police moved them along. But the Pokéstops remained, so the next night – and the night after that, for weeks – the crowds returned. In the end, Niantic was directed by the local council to remove the Pokéstops. Once they had gone, the crowds vanished.
We are so good at sharing the good news – about a game, a beautiful place, a news event – that our numbers can quickly snowball. Removing the friction from human connection means we can draw together into incredible concentrations of humanity nearly instantaneously. The world between our ears can accommodate that, so long as the crowd never tips over into a mob. However, the real world of physical places and human bodies can be broken by our drive to share everything that touches us.
For that reason, we're rediscovering an old truth: silence can be golden. ®