Connecting Online or Going Off the Trail – Now, You Can Do Both

Associate Professor Colin Agur’s work seeks to shed light on the ways adventurers and average pedestrians use smartphone apps while out in the world.

Time and again, when society has experienced a period of isolation and seclusion, people have yearned to explore. The Black Plague of the 14th century gave rise to the expansion of art and science that defined the Renaissance. The end of the 1918 flu, better known as the Spanish flu, became the transition point into the upending of culture that defined the Roaring Twenties in America.

In much the same way, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed average citizens to explore a frontier they may have previously taken for granted: the great outdoors. Desperate to escape their own homes, people are venturing out into the wild with more determination than before. 

Many new adventurers bring along their handy smartphones in order to help facilitate safe and meaningful passes through nature. While the many features found on most phones these days can offer helpful resources, is it also possible for an app to greatly distort our perception of reality? 

This question is at the forefront of Associate Professor Colin Agur’s latest research. As an emerging media scholar focusing his work on mobile communication and its usage in everyday life, Agur interrogates both the pros and the cons of bringing technology into areas previously considered “off the grid.”

Navigational Apps: Handy Helpers for New Explorers
Utilizing an app on a smartphone to assist in an everyday activity is not a new idea to many Americans. We check the weather to decide what outfit we’ll wear, read the news to stay up to date on happenings in our community, manage our finances via banking apps, and more.

When heading out, whether that be to our workspace in an urban environment, or to the great outdoors, mobile apps provide many of the same functions. Agur believes that novice explorers are “using phones as a way to understand nature.” Of course, the obvious safety features present in apps like Google Maps make bringing along a smartphone on your next hike an obvious choice. However, Agur has seen much more creative smart technology usage than finding the nearest hiking trail. 

Apps you might already have on your phone can take on new capabilities. Foursquare and other social media platforms that utilize tagging functions can be used to indicate your exact location to others. Nextdoor can help you share exciting findings with your neighbors. Even the popular music identification app, Shazam, can assist in distinguishing animal calls you may not recognize.

On top of this, the recent rise in augmented reality (AR) has given smartphone users an entirely new way to experience their natural environment. Millions of people discovered how exciting AR can be when the game Pokemon Go launched a few years ago. For the first time in history, it is possible to use real surroundings to assist in a game or virtual reality. However, in Agur’s interrogation of smartphone usage, the fun and games of a cool new app don’t always have entirely positive effects.

A New Sense of Reality
When you view a real scene through your phone screen, you may simply be doing so in order to have a navigation app point you in the right direction with a bright arrow. Or, you might be using artificial intelligence to help identify buildings, statues, and other notable structures near you. In either case, Agur posits that you are warping your view of your surroundings. In essence, apps can alter our perception of what we see and hear. And this can have consequences.

Take, for example, morel hunters. These social groups, made up of anyone from recreational hikers to professional naturalists, are interested in locating clusters of these mushrooms that are particularly difficult to find. In Agur’s perception, there is a game-like sense in scouting out the elusive fungi. It follows, then, that those who actively seek morels may not appreciate an app or website giving away the exact location of a recently discovered cluster. From Agur’s view, “people need to earn their morels” in order to fully experience the joy of the hunt.

The consequences of phone usage extend far beyond some mushrooms, however. It is true that many apps can teach users about the devastating reality and looming threat of climate change. At the same time, many more pose nature as a fun, peaceful environment removed from the stresses of everyday life. 

Smartphone apps can help identify nearby creatures, and may even place a few adorable monsters in our phones’ frame of view for us to collect and share virtually. Agur is concerned that using amusing apps to observe nature “may give us the impression that we’re not destroying the world.” After all, a new adventurer might wonder how climate change could be all that prevalent when the natural world that they seek and dream of is readily accessible to them through their phone screens.

These competing notions of smartphone app assistance and hindrance comprise the basis of Agur’s upcoming book, “On the Wire: Mobile Communication and the Natural World.” For his first independently authored book, Agur intends to investigate the larger implications of this widespread phone app usage in everyday exploration, as well as their potential impacts on other social networks and hybrid spaces. While smartphones certainly aren’t going anywhere, this research, he hopes, will remind others of how mobile communication remains woven into the relationships and lives of its users, even as they seek an escape from their regular routines. 

Written by Regan Carter

colin agur