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This summer I was traveling in Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, an otherworldly landscape of red sand and towering rock formations. Its topography is alien enough that it was used as the Red Planet film location for Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), but what made it feel especially distant from the rest of the Earth was the complete lack of cellphone reception and internet. If you’re living in one of the world’s connected regions (and since you’re reading these words on an exclusively digital publication, I’m guessing you are), it can be easy to forget that large populations in the world remain disconnected.
White Spots: A Journey to the Edge of the Internet was launched last year as an app for iPhone and Google Play. It visualizes the digital networks around us, mapping those “white spots” where there is no network connection. It was collaboratively created by designer Richard Vijgen (who previously made the Architecture of Radio app as a network “field guide”), documentary filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak (director of Offline is the New Luxury), and visual artist Jacqueline Hassink. The app was recently a finalist at the Dutch Design Awards, and will be the focus of an exhibition opening February 2018 at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. The multimedia project involves a VR experience where you can use Google Cardboard to scan local digital signals in real-time, as well as a smartphone world map pinned with short documentaries on living with and without the internet. If you visit a white spot, you can add a pin with the story of your experience.
On launching White Spots, my screen was immediately swarmed with cellphone networks and a jarring digital noise. You can click the text “get me out!” to map directions to the nearest white spot. From my apartment in Brooklyn, I am 156 km (97 miles) to the nearest one, a quiet corner of Lake Waramaug State Park in Connecticut. However, for me, and potentially most White Spots users, disconnecting would be a choice. The app’s world map shows much of North America and Europe in the black, while large sections of South America and Africa are white voids.
Filmmaker van der Haak told Forbes that one inspiration behind the project was the commitment by world leaders at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos to connect the unconnected by 2020. The short documentaries accessible on White Spots highlight the current global realities. They include a visit to a digital detox spa in Baden, Germany; one man’s struggle to get online in Mwiogo, Kenya; the Amish in Shipshewana, Indiana, who are choosing how new technology fits with their values; an adult internet-free summer camp in Mendocino, California; a doctor treating internet addiction in China; and a secret meeting room in Prague that shields users from networks.
White Spots joins other recent projects to visualize the visible and invisible communication networks around us, such as Ingrid Burrington’s internet infrastructure field guide for New York, and Julie Anand and Damon Sauer’s photographs of Cold War-era satellite calibration markers, overlaid with current satellite paths. It is increasingly difficult to escape the electromagnetic cloud covering the planet. However be warned, the White Spots app is a bit of a phone battery drainer, so you may find yourself more quickly offline than expected if you venture out to wander the networks in virtual reality.