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The paradox of smartphone safety

The paradox of smartphone safety 

If you are not too familiar with outdoor trekking, I can give you a quick idea of the Swedish summer version; constant daylight, fresh air and miles of wilderness. You have the towering mountains around you and shifting weather, from hard horizontal rain to a warming sun. No electricity, no running water apart from the streams of melted snow, no civilization, and no network coverage. Well, almost. Network coverage has been improved lately and, in some areas, you can get a signal, but you shouldn’t count on it.

Yet – and now some of my fellow trekkers will disagree – network coverage can improve your experience to some extent. It can allow you to get updated weather reports, send any changes of your hiking route to family members and, hopefully, you can reach out to local mountain safety teams if you find yourself in trouble.

This last part is interesting and I believe it is changing people’s behavior. Our smartphones are becoming a pretty good security tool. By being able to reach information and support at all times, people can solve or avoid dangerous situations. Still, the trust in the smartphone can also put you in situations you wouldn’t have found yourself in before.

I became aware of this one late evening in northern Sweden. Let me share the experience: I was staying for a night in an open mountain hut, just outside the border to the national park Stora Sjöfallet, way off from civilization. The evening started in tranquil peace. I was brushing my teeth looking up the mountains. I waved off some mosquitos and took one last sip of water from the creek before hitting the sack. After a few minutes sleep, I was awakened by a high-pitch alarm. Alerted, like everyone else staying in the cabin, I flew up from my bed. But since there was nothing in the cabin that should be able to make this sound, we were all quite disoriented. No electricity – no gadgets – no alarms, right? So where did the sound come from? And then we found the box with the emergency phone.

“Ehm… Hello?”

It was the police – they were looking for a young man from Holland. He had not been heard from since he set out on his hike. And I realized by the description that he had been on the same boat as me two days earlier. But I hadn’t seen him since. Later, I learned that he was found alive, though severely mosquito bitten and exhausted, high on a mountain side where he had made his way up but then been unable to get back down.

Accordingly to some cabin hosts I have talked to since, the number of inexperienced tourists that find themselves in trouble in the Swedish mountains has increased. And so too has the number of tourists calling for help, according to them. And I’m thinking maybe this has something to do with the perception of the smartphone.

The smartphone has made it easier to avoid or solve dangerous situations by providing access to information and support at all times. But trusting the phone might also lead to overestimating one’s own ability to handle challenges you might encounter, or becoming careless with preparing or planning before setting of on a venture. So it is a paradox of safety between avoiding a risk and putting yourself in one. (And it turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks this way.)

Already now we see how usage of the smartphone has put new demands on our emergency services. For example, as described in our trends for 2016, smartphone users expect to be able to reach emergency services on chat, social networks and apps. But my guess is that we will also see more people putting themselves in difficult situations, in the mountains, at sea, on travels and perhaps even in city dwellings. This points towards the need for providers of safety services, security and travel agencies and other actors to work together to create awareness of risks and how to avoid them, before people end up in them.

And perhaps the demand for improved connectivity in remote areas will grow as well? This would be a fright for trekking people who look for the sanctuary non-connectivity but perhaps a delight for future tourists who want to experience the distant nature too. I am torn between the two, but lean against the former. Still I will bring my phone, but in reality I think it is my new pair of boots that actually will support me better during my hikes this summer.


RebeckaCederingAngstrom-44Rebecka is a Senior Advisor at Ericsson ConsumerLab responsible for conducting international consumer research with a focus on ICT. She has deep interest in technology trends, especially within privacy and security and how emerging consumer behaviors influence societies.

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