Workshop Wrapup: Technology on the Trail Day 1

Today we kicked off the Technology on the Trail workshop at Virginia Tech.

The morning started with talks by our four invited guests: Allison Druin from the National Park Service, Alan Dix from Birmingham University (UK), Ellie Harmon from Encountering Tech, and Norman Su of Indiana University. The talks were very different, but all touched on the self-discovery that takes place when people go out on trails, and the evolving and sometimes contentious role that technology has with it.

Scott McCrickard’s giant selfie looms over Alan Dix during a discussion of the phenomenology of selfies.

The afternoon consisted of work sessions, when we delved into topics of interest. Steve Harrison led the first session, titled “Spectacle vs Experience”. Groups talked about the nature and phenomenology of the selfie, the mediation that takes place in technology on the trail, and the roles taken on in traversing trails. Michael Horning led the second session. It focused on seamfulness in nature, looking at different types (and subtypes) of trail users that exist. For example, hikers’ goals on the trail differ from hunters, and day hikers differ from thru-hikers.

The evening will feature a community reception in the lobby of the Moss Arts Center.  There will be posters about ongoing projects, exhibits of artifacts from a cultural probe on hiking, and a demo of a multi-person blog analysis tool applied to hiking blogs.

We will post the talks and the full findings from the work sessions in follow-up posts on this blog. You can tweet or follow tweets about the event at #VTechTrail.

Reading Group Summary: Harmon, the PCT, and Communication


Ellie Harmon explore how technology can lead to stress. It will be up to our group to explore implications about the findings about technology on trail-based activities. (Ambitious people can track down Ellie’s dissertation, which talks about technology and her PCT experience.)


  • Brief revisit of reading group and introductions of anyone new
    • Attendance: 5 people (1 professor, 3 graduate students, 1 undergraduate student)
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers


This was our first paper for the reading group which was not expressly connected to trails, so we all connected the messages and tension of disconnection to the context of hiking in our own ways. Earlier that week, Dr. McCrickard and I (Gracie) had spoken with Ellie Harmon over Skype to pick her brain about Technology on the Trail and ask questions related to her hike of the Pacific Crest Trial (which she discusses in her dissertation), so we had some extra insight to bring to the table.

The group first discussed the differences between technologies that are fads (like the Hololens and Pokemon Go) and technologies that integrate themselves into our lives (like smartphones and laptops). We also revisited several times the ways in which we as a society view the past with rose-colored lenses. We have a picture of America in the 50s where families ate together lovingly every day, but there have always been distractions even before smartphones.

One group member suggested that instead of having a false binary or even a continuum to portray disconnection and integration, we might instead strive for a metaphorical tapestry that weaves together threads from both sides to create the ideal situation. We could consciously choose when to experience integration with technology and where we can disintegrate, such as when needing concentrated time for studying.

We also touched on how people feel vs how they appear. Someone might view themself as being one of the two positive images, but that’s never wholly true. We also intentionally wield technology to portray an image, such as pulling out a phone to appear busy even if you’re looking at a blank screen. Even then, outsiders might believe they’re playing a game rather than working. We also talked about how some people see technology use as antisocial and negative even though they’d see something like reading a book as intellectual and admirable. The person on the phone could in fact be reading a book, but it still has a far different connotation.

Touching on early adopters again, we talked about why people are so interested in being on the first (often expensive) wave of technology users. There are hikers who are excited about trying the latest gadgets out on trails. We talked about the social status is brings for being “first” or even “best” at technology, but we also talked about how the new experience itself is a nice bonus. One group member brought up the luddite image by suggesting there might be an adoption curve of sorts which starts with early adopters, rises into general use, and hits a plateau upon which anyone who isn’t using it appears to be out of touch with technology.

One member brought up the effect of having constant stimulus from technology and whether this creates a lack of boredom in our culture. They brought up a cub scout troop which, as they got older, went on their first camping for an extended period of time, and many of the young boys were unused to long periods with nothing to do (and they had a no technology rule in the troop). Technology has the potential to provide constant stimulus in our daily lives, and some members felt this could be an addiction.

We also discussed the enabling effect of technology for working from home or otherwise remotely. Many trails even have satellite or cell signal now. One member felt that being physically disconnected from work when leaving for camping or other remote experiences created more thorough preparation before leaving. That is, if you wanted to accomplish work while camping, you had to be entirely sure to pack it and all relevant files beforehand because there was no way to remotely access your workplace.

We finished by musing on the effect of being able to take thousands of photos because we’re not longer limited by film. One member talked about how they valued selfies from a particular distant friend because said friend rarely took any selfies at all, so the low volume made each one more special. We also brought up Dr. Harmon’s anecdote from the phone conversation about limiting herself to one photograph uploaded to Instagram daily during her PCT hike, and this made the set of photos far more appealing after the fact. Some members also felt that technology like smartphone cameras can interrupt or detract from experiences of the outdoors.