What We Lose by Being Hooked on GPS

January 31, 2014

GPS driving app vs. the paper map

GPS driving app vs. the paper map

I prepared for our California road trip by getting maps from AAA and printing some driving directions off of Mapquest.com.  My husband brought his phone.

Typically on a road trip, I am the navigator and my husband is the driver.  Inevitably, we argue at least once about the proper course, which lane he should be in, when he should start slowing down for an upcoming exit, etc.  After missing a turn in San Francisco, my husband turned on his smart phone and fired up the app with directions given in voice commands.  He wanted to show me how effective this new technology is and take the stress of navigating strange roads from me.  (I also noticed that he had no problem following the voice commands of the pleasant, well modulated, non-judgmental voice of the virtual female whereas he sometimes bristles taking directions from me!)

Well, I can see the benefits of using the smart phone.  You don’t have the clutter of paper maps and printed directions, if you make a “wrong” turn it automatically finds a way to get you back on track (without yelling), and if you come up with a new destination at the last minute, you can easily key that in on the spot.  I think it is extremely helpful when you are driving the streets of a strange city and you lose track of north, south, east and west and are totally unfamiliar with the layout.

Inasmuch as these devices do get you to your final destination, you arrive without a good sense of where you are physically situated.  I would miss knowing that.  I feel more grounded with a picture in my mind that plots me in place.

Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker in Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas speak about navigating with maps vs. using the new digital tools:  “Most people don’t use paper maps anymore.  Instead, they use digital data services — their smart phones, GPS devices that issue voice commands, or various versions of MapQuest and Google maps that generate specific directions.  The problem with these technologies is that though they help get you where you’re going, that’s all they do.  With a proper map, you take charge; with these other means, you take orders and don’t learn your way around, any more than you learn math using a calculator.  A map shows countless possible routes; a computer-generated itinerary shows one.  Using the new navigational aids, you remain dependent, and your trajectory requires obedience to the technology — some GPS devices literally dictate voice commands you are meant to obey.  When you navigate with a paper map, tracing your own route rather than having it issued as a line, a list, or a set of commands, you incrementally learn the lay of the land. . . . The map is then no longer on paper in front of you but inside you. . .”

“A great map should stir up wonder and curiosity, prompt revelation, and deepen orientation.  It should make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”

Solnit revisited this theme from an earlier book, Hollow City:  The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism.  She sees the possibility of encounter and participation as one of the primary virtues of city life, where your smaller private spaces “force” you to go out into the shared amenities — parks, libraries, streets, cafes, plazas, transit, etc.  Sharing experiences builds community.  She says, “And this brings us to the most pernicious effect of the new technology:  its hostility to public life.  The rhetoric of the new technology constantly celebrates liberation from the need to leave the house, or if we do leave the house, to learn to navigate, to ask strangers for directions or other acts of connection made obsolete by GPS and cell phones . . .”

Traveling and tourism, though, still require getting out into the world.  Solnit says, ” . . . tourism is still about public life: about walking around, encountering the unknown, feeling the textures that make places distinctive.”  My husband says that one of his most favorite things to do on a trip is talk with people, and I saw that on this trip — from the surfers on the Santa Cruz beaches, to the docents at the monarch butterfly groves, and the two ladies painting outdoors in the Baylands Nature Reserve, etc. — these encounters make his journeys worthwhile.  He would say that the time saved by using his smart phone to navigate gives him more time out of the car with people.  That makes sense, too.

9 Responses to “What We Lose by Being Hooked on GPS”

  1. Lynne Says:

    On a recent trip to the Scottish highlands and islands with a friend, we found that the ideal navigational system married GPS with maps. Without the maps, we had no sense of where we were, and where we were headed, when the GPS suddenly lost satellite connection or couldn’t locate an unmapped place (of which there were many).


  2. I am a map person…never used GPS in my 56 yrs.


  3. I love maps! In college, I made maps. I actually used pen and ink to draw a map, then take a picture of it, develop it, and voila! I had a map. I definitely feel more grounded with a map.

  4. shoreacres Says:

    I have used a GPS on exactly one trip. Two years ago, on my trip to the midwest, I wanted to find the grave of my great-great-grandmother’s best friend. I had the address, a map, and the GPS coordinates. The cemetery was so far in the middle of nowhere there were only dirt roads and few signs, so it was a perfect test.

    When I finally got to the correct intersection, I stopped to confirm my location with the GPS. I just was getting into my car to head down the road when an old guy in a pickup pulled up. He asked if I was in trouble, and I said no, I just was on my way to White Cloud cemetery – and by the way, was this the road? “Sure is,” he said, “but you’ll not get very far. The bridge has been washed out for weeks.”

    So there’s that.

    On my last trip, I went to Google Earth, found Teter Rock (also in the middle of nowhere) and printed out the map. In the end, Google not only had misspelled the name, they had the rock misplaced by several miles, but I didn’t know that until I’d stopped in the one-pump gas station, bought a coke to be polite and got the right directions from the lady serving up the fried chicken.
    As she said, “You’re gonna feel like it’s wrong, but it’s right. Keep on going.” And she was right.

    All of which is to say, I’m not a believer. What’s so funny is that when I started my blog nearly six years ago, one of the “basic choices” I put on my About page was “map or compass”. I think I need to go in and edit that to say “map and compass” or “GPS”!

    • Rosemary Says:

      My one bad experience with being lost was not due to maps or GPS but rather that I was driving in a country where I did not know the language — so I couldn’t read the signs nor follow the directions people were more than willing to give me. What was I thinking!

  5. shoreacres Says:

    Oh – and there’s this, from the NYTimes. A little more broad ranging, but relevant.

    • Rosemary Says:

      I agree with his point of view. I especially liked the observation that we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. I’m reluctant to join Facebook or Twitter or tumblr or LinkedIn even though I know it is one way to market my website (blog) and reach more people. I just have an ingrained resistance to these networking tools.


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