IT Confidential: Mt. Rushmore Vs. American Idol? No Contest

People are losing interest in our national parks, and electronic media may be to blame.
Technology is a trade-off. A study funded by the Nature Conservancy, to be published next month in the Journal of Environmental Management, found that since 1987 per capita visits to U.S. national parks have declined, after having risen for the previous 50 years. The most likely culprit: electronic media.

According to a statement from the Nature Conservancy, the data was analyzed by University of Illinois ecologist Oliver Pergams, with others, and more than two dozen variables were tested. The conclusion: the increase in going out to movies, home-movie rentals, and the use of video games and the Internet--along with rising fuel prices, which we'll ignore for the moment--can explain almost 98% of the decline in people visiting national parks.

The scientists pointed out that correlation is not the same as causation, and that further study of the data would be needed. Still, "It's fairly stunning," Pergams said.

Now, the free-market advocate in me would be tempted to say: Tough beans, Mother Nature. It's a put-up-or-shut-up game. If you can't stand the competitive heat, get out of the entertainment kitchen.

But technology may yet be the saving grace, and here's how: The number of people watching broadcast video on mobile phones will reach 514 million by 2011, according to a new study by ABI Research. That's up from 6.4 million at the end of last year. ABI Research says three companies are planning to introduce mobile video broadcast services in the next 18 months: Hiwire, MediaFlo, which already has signed a deal with Verizon Wireless, and Modeo (see "Stars Lining Up For Mobile TV").

That means very soon parents and kids could have it both ways. They might soak in the natural splendor of Yosemite while watching Jackass reruns on the cell. Take a pack mule through the Grand Canyon while voting for American Idol. Admire the artistry of both Mount Rushmore and Adult Swim. You get the idea.

So what's the trade-off? "The vast majority of cell phone owners (over 2.29 billion mobile users worldwide) aren't even aware that they will soon be hit with frequent mobile advertising," according to an e-mail release from a company called Action Engine, which identifies itself as a mobile application platform. "[Mobile] Advertisements... can use all of the information (who the phone user is, their geographical location, user preferences) to provide relevant ('context-aware') advertisements that add value to the consumer experience." I'm all for adding value, but that location-tracking stuff is a little creepy. Of course, if you're visiting national parks, and not strip clubs or Taliban meetings, then you have nothing to worry about.

As for rising fuel prices, I have a suggestion. Why not drill for oil in one of the national parks, and then turn it into a reality show? You could do a different national park every season. Both parents and kids will want to come to the national parks to watch the shows being made, and cheap, domestic fuel will be available for them to do it.

After all, reality is a trade-off.

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