Does Technology Endanger Outdoor Recreationists?

Technology and the frontiers have a strange relationship.

Within the tenor of the city, cell phones, computers and other shiny devices abound. Within the hush of nature, the mind typically conjures a world infused with birds and beasts and a landscape experienced in fractal, one devoid of the devices employed to speed up our lives.

However, technology often helps people to forge deeper and more boldly into the wilderness. Lewis and Clark used the sextant to measure the angles of the stars and navigate Westward through The New World; the diver Jacques Ernest-Jean Piccard used a pressured bathyscaphe to dive over seven miles into the sea; and now SUV’s, cell phones and GPS devices are emboldening tourists to delve deeper into national parks, often into precarious situations.

The New York Times ran an article Friday detailing several accounts—many of which were pretty humorous—of people finding themselves in sticky situations, due, in some part to their reliance on or misuse of their technological devices.

One example recounts how hikers used an emergency button on their SPOT GPS device to summon an emergency helicopter because their water “tasted salty.”To add to the absurdity, the inept hikers summoned the emergency rescuers three separate times, the last one resulting in their leader being ticketed and the entire group being dismissed from the park.

On the surface, the NYT article seems to cast the blame on technology. Take the Headline: Technology Leads More Park Visitors Into Trouble. This title personifies the word ‘”technology,” rendering it an embodied figure leading park visitors by the hand off a precipice or into a bear den.

The article talks about people backing off cliffs while taking pictures, risking summits or rafting trips that they wouldn’t have considered had they been without a cell phone, and it even includes Youtube footage of people attacked by animals because they were too busy peering through camcorder lenses.

What the article doesn’t make clear is that the gap in the continuum between these people and Lewis and Clark or Jacques Ernest-Jean Piccard may be greater than the Grand Canyon itself.

Technology such as SPOT, which is a GPS device, is constructed with adventurer-safety in mind. The very intention is to help the situation of the endangered traveler, not to confound the problem through misuse.

Going into the wilderness carries with it a level of inherent risk, and the SPOT Web site is replete with S.O.S. situations in which death was averted because of the device. The majority of the accounts listed were of expert outdoorsmen who, despite taking several precautions, found themselves in trouble. It is hard to say these instances constitute a misuse; especially, as many of the adventures would have been undertaken without the device.