I just returned from five days of backpacking in the Ansel Adams Wilderness to be faced with the yearly article on Stupid People in the Outdoors. This year’s contender features a buffalo goring and a group calling in rescue helicopters because their water “tasted salty.” This is all standard Stupid People antics, but the NYT article blamed “technology.” As an advocate for the use of technology in outdoor education, this wounded my tender tree-loving heart. Technology may give fools loud voices, but doesn’t actually increase the supply of fools. (Jack Shafer at Slate looked at the statistics and agrees.)
Now, I’m no stranger to Homo asinum. I spent a season warning cotton-clad, shivering tourists on NH’s Mt. Washington that “People die up here! Even in summer!” (Seriously, they do! There’s a whole book!) But too often technology is placed in diametric opposition to the natural world when it should be viewed as a helpful tool. For example, as a naturalist and educator, the number one question I always get is “What is that?” This is a question made for technology to answer!
Here’s two of my favorite iPhone apps, ones that I just used myself on my backpacking trip. StarWalk is a visually stunning app that identifies the stars and constellations when you point your device around the sky. It can also travel in time (what was the sky like two months ago?) and search and map specific celestial bodies (where is Jupiter tonight?).
The Audubon Field Guides are now also available for mobile devices – I have the four-pack of trees, wildflowers, birds, and mammals. They are not cheap (the four-pack was $40) but are a considerable savings in money and weight over the books. Not even a dedicated nerd-hiker like myself would carry a bunch of heavy ID books on a trip like this – it’s hard enough to carry 35+ pounds of necessary equipment and food. My personal highlight was figuring out what weasel-like mammal had leaped into the path ahead of me. (It was an American marten – super cool!). But simply being able to look up trees and wildflowers without having to carry 4 different guides was amazing.
Obviously there are countless ways to use GPS and mobile devices to enhance people’s wilderness experience. I’m particularly eager to see more marine apps developed – I would love to see a Guide to the Pacific Tidepools for high-traffic areas such as Cabrillo and Big Sur, for example. (Want to develop one? I’ll help!) Activities not directly related to the natural world, like geocaching, are a fun way to get people outside. And the communities created by technology can get people outdoors too – Outdoor Afro is a great example of this.
I think this is such an important topic that I’ve proposed a Technology and the Outdoors session for Science Online 2011, but my rant about the NYT article just couldn’t keep. People managed to kill themselves in ludicrous ways before GPS – heck, at least 5 people have died trying to urinate into the Grand Canyon – and they will continue to do so. This shouldn’t distract from the amazing and ever-growing number of cool applications for research and learning outside.