What difference does the internet make? Critics blame it for a range of ills, from social collapse and child abuse to obesity. So shouldn’t we greet with some caution and even sadness the recent announcement that Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite broadband is to reach tiny Pitcairn Island in the Pacific Ocean, home to the handful of descendants from the 1789 mutiny on the Bounty? Will the advent of Zoom calls and the ability to stream The Crown turn this idyllic tribe into socially fractured, screen-obsessed time-wasters? Is high-speed connectivity the beginning of the end for this Pacific paradise?
I think not. Because this 38-strong community collapsed long before Musk was crowned the richest man in the world. It doesn’t take Starlink for paradise to turn sour.
Pitcairn is probably the most isolated inhabited place on our planet. Hover your finger above a map of the Pacific and somewhere in the middle of that vast blue blanket is a speck called Pitcairn – a mile-by-mile-and-a-half lump of volcanic rock more than 3,000 miles from the nearest landmass. It took a three-week voyage on a cargo vessel through the Panama Canal and across the ocean for me to reach it, clambering down the ship’s side on a Jacob’s ladder and into a longboat several miles offshore. Pitcairn has no natural harbour, no airstrip and no regular contact with the world beyond. Any online access has been slow and limited. Until now. Until Starlink.
When I was on the island, talking to the rest of the Earth was a challenge. The most reliable form of communication was VHF radio, so crackly long distance conversations were dotted with ‘Roger’ and ‘Over and out’. We linked up with amateur radio enthusiasts worldwide, in Texas or Torquay, who passed on our messages in more ordinary ways to the intended recipients.