Does your iPhone make you stupid?

By Jonny Evans

"In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness."

Marshall McLuhan

Apple [AAPL] fans: If you're planning a cross-country ramble, don't rely on Google Maps on your iPhone to find your way -- take a proper compass and a map and some warm clothes. That's the message from mountain rescue professionals who claim iPhone users are increasing the number of rescue call outs by 50 percent, because they haven't got a clue.

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Common sense: is there an app for that?

At issue is lack of preparation and basic map reading skills. Nick Owen, Langdale and Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team leader, tells The Telegraph: "They're great with technology but they can't walk up a hill without getting into trouble. They take no sensible kit like spare clothing and they rely on technical gadgetry which they're not familiar with."

There's a host of examples of iPhone users getting themselves in trouble, including that of one couple who tried to find their way off a thickly-misted mountain peak using Google Maps on their iPhone. They had to be rescued.

Mountain rescue professionals are pretty vexed with the new generation of 'digital natives'. They criticize them for their lack of planning and note, "It's a generation that's never experienced risk or inconvenience -- they get lost and then can't think beyond the fact they are wet and cold."

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Steven Wood, chairman of UK mapping firm, Mapyx, said today: "Personally, I don't use a smartphone on the hill because of potential reception problems in some areas, fairly short battery life and mostly they are not waterproof. I would certainly not recommend one as a sole means of navigation."

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Location, location...

That is the point, really. I'm aware of the almost religious experience some enjoy when cuddling closely to their Apple devices in this silicon age, but just because our minds bestow these things with semi-divine powers doesn't make them infallible. The Catch-22 challenge of becoming ever more reliant on technological devices in order to accomplish tasks these days is that many of us run the risk of neglecting to acquire key survival skills of our own. After all, what happens when the electricity gets turned off?

Mapyx is the official GIS and digital mapping partner for Mountain Rescue outfits in England and Wales. It provides topographical maps far more sophisticated than anything you'll find inside Google Maps (though it will be interesting to see what Apple's mapping services turn out to be like once it finally brings in those technologies it acquired with Placebase).

All the same, a dependence on technology can be misplaced. Kendal Mountain Rescue team leader Eddie Harrison said, "People think technology will make their life easier but a lot of the younger generation seem to be relying on it."

It is also interesting to reflect on the fallibility of location data on these GPS-enabled smart devices, given the ruckus that's broken out over the iPhone and Google's location data mining habits.

So do these devices make us stupid? Perhaps they make us act stupid. Remember Walt Mossberg in 2008 when he claimed you couldn't get into an: "Argument about facts with an iPhone user without them whipping out the phone and looking up the answer."

Certainly technology has a part to play. There's many a story of how apps on an iPhone have helped save lives, in medicine iPads are becoming part of the essential toolkit to heal people.

Are we becoming over-dependent? Allan Snyder, director of the University of Sydney's Centre for the Mind, notes: ''Not having to memorize huge compendiums of particular knowledge but just freely being able to tap into them and have your mind just being imaginative might be a great advantage.''

Man and machine

It is perhaps fair to say it isn't about access to information, and is more about processing the information you are receiving. Sometimes these enablers make us blind. Take texting -- when you are creating an SMS message you should remain aware of your surroundings. Many of us do not. In the UK around 6.6 million people injure themselves every year while texting, reports claim.

The arguments put about by road safety organizations is another case in point. The AA describes a phenomenon it calls 'iPod oblivion', in which a pedestrian can be so involved in what's coming down those white headphones they switch off to what's around them.

  • Analysis from AA Insurance shows that pedestrian inattention could be the cause of 17 collisions each day in the UK and noted a 5 per cent increase in such collisions last year.
  • Beyond the UK, a study from the Pew Research Centre in the USA shows that 17 per cent of adults owning mobiles have bumped into another person or object due to be being distracted by talking or texting on the phone.
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In Australia police launched a graphic poster campaign in an attempt to convince 'iPeople' to pay a little more attention when crossing the road. Note the white chalk lines surrounding the body in the picture above -- and the subtle addition of the white headphones.

And can we parse all the data we receive? Marshall McLuhan once wrote, "One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There's always more than you can cope with."

Technology is a great enabler. Unfortunately it does not negate stupidity. Returning to the question: Is it really the iPhones which make us stupid, or do we ship with stupid pre-installed?

Go on, say what you think. How can Apple improve its iOS devices to make them more reliable in emergency situations, and are we becoming over reliant on the smartphone? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld

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