The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
As this publication reported July 20 (“Satellites disturb Arizona stargazers”), there is a dilemma facing Starlink, SpaceX’s program to provide high-speed internet to nearly every inch of the planet by deploying thousands of satellites. On one hand, internet connectivity is a good thing, particularly for underserved communities. However, Starlink interferes with our view of the night sky, something of importance to astronomers and the general public alike.
What has not been grappled with, though, is a different problem: Starlink threatens some of the deepest chances for solitude that we have thus far enjoyed. Although other technologies connect us with each other, there have always been places where one can get away — where one loses cell reception and is unable to be reached by others, for instance. Many of these places are within federal lands in the Western states. Congress has recognized the connection, in particular, between solitude and wilderness. The Wilderness Act (1964) describes wilderness as providing “outstanding opportunities for solitude,” which has been echoed by certain indigenous tribes in the creation of the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness.
If SpaceX’s goal is to provide high-speed internet to nearly every inch of the globe, then in any of the wilderness areas throughout Arizona, one will be able to catch up on emails, check the price of stocks, or video conference with co-workers. Of course, one could try to exert self-constraint in these regards — say, by voluntarily shutting off one’s phone — but this fails to understand how technology becomes embedded in our lives. We are ever-enticed and ever-expected by others to remain plugged in. Furthermore, even if we successfully control our temptation to check in with others, the knowledge that one could, at the flick of a switch, access nearly anyone else in the world, does much to limit one’s sense of being fully alone.
This is a real loss. Philosopher John Stuart Mill remarked nearly 175 years ago that “solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations, which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without.” Solitude is not just relaxing, but can also provide a chance to reflect on who we are within the broader world and free up our attention so we can focus on and appreciate the natural world itself. This is what Starlink jeopardizes. It extends the reach of our digitally mediated social worlds so that, no matter where we are, we will be tweeting, snapchatting and emailing.
This does not mean that Starlink should be terminated altogether. It is of immense value to remote communities in particular. However, Congress should mandate that there be internet dead zones, particularly over areas where the imprint of society is already “considerably reduced” and chances for solitude are high, such as within federally designated wilderness. Put differently, Congress could reconsider what wilderness preservation looks like today in a world more and more mediated by technology. They already prohibit vehicular traffic and commercial enterprises from wilderness; why not prohibit high-speed internet, too? In fact, there is other precedent for the idea: already, there are radio dead zones in the U.S. — places where radio signals are not permitted for scientific and military reasons. Mandated internet dead zones could be modeled on these areas.
As a matter of engineering, this is easier said than done. It may be near impossible to ensure that certain federal lands remain out of satellites’ line of sight without also limiting internet access to remote communities. So, the question is whether satellites can have a self-imposed blind spot, limiting, in a Swiss-cheese fashion, their coverage to just inhabited areas, leaving little holes of internet dead zones over natural areas within their line of sight. As is, though, SpaceX’s plan constitutes one of the most significant threats to our solitude.
Levi Tenen is an assistant professor of philosophy at Kettering University and a native Tucsonan who specializes in environmental ethics and the philosophy of technology.