Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Driving without GPS

February 5, 2012General

A month ago, on a drive to New Hampshire, I tried something so old it was new. Sitting in the navigator seat, I left my GPS-equipped smart phone in my pocket and instead opened an old Rand McNally road atlas. It turned out to be the easiest, most hassle-free drive in a long time. A New York Times opinion piece about GPS and the brain reminded me of that trip. Since then I've been wondering why the old-fashioned map proved to be so calming.

My first thought is that GPS delivers too much detailed information. For a single exit, for example, it might tell you to turn right and continue for 650 feet, then take another right, continuing for 800 feet, and then a left. So you're looking from your phone to the road, asking: "Have we gone 650 feet yet? Was that the right?! Each step of the instructions raises a new question, and insecurity. The map, by contrast, simply shows you that in Hartford you switch from I-84 to I-91 N. That step might involve three or four smaller turns, but they're all well marked and relatively easy to follow. For this, we rely on our eyes and navigations skills we've developed for decades, or even centuries, and there's no glitchy machine interface to deal with. I can't emphasize enough how effortless it was.

Google, the same company that makes the popular mapping app in my phone, is also developing robotic navigation for cars. And if you think about it, the GPS instructions are perfect for the bots. Those machines aren't nearly as skillful as we are at looking around, picking up landmarks and reading signs. But tell them to make three right turns and a left at precise distances, and they dutifully process the commands. So, in that sense, those of us who use GPS are repressing the human skills that computers struggle to match. Instead we mold our minds to a stream of data generated by and for computers. Trouble is, when it comes to robot skills, we're mere apprentices. A Google car "knows" that it has traveled 837 feet. We don't, and it provokes anxiety in many of us.

(continued below huge map illustration)

(photo from

The easy conclusion to draw would be that the natural me, my senses in harmony with the map on my lap, was navigating the drive to New Hampshire. The GPS-wielders, by contrast, are denatured humans who turn their back on rich analog skills and, as the Times article suggests, stunt navigational development in the brain.

However, it's worth nothing that at one point in human development, maps were new. Back then, I'm sure,  similar debates flared. Old-fashioned orienters relied on smells, winds, landmarks, and above all, stars, to find their way. Those wielding maps were substituting new-fangled symbols for old-fashioned data, and they risked sacrificing ancient skills that humans had been developing for eons. By picking up maps, we turned our back on nature. It's a process we've been following for at least 50,000 years.

In his captivating book, The Tiger, John Vaillant argues that the first form of human literacy was our ability to "read" the trail of the animals we hunted. He writes:

The first letter fo the first word of the first recorded story ever was written--"printed"--not but us, but by an animal. These signs and symbols left in mud, sand, leaves, and snow represent proto-alphabets. Often smeared, fragmented, and confused by weather, time and other animals, these cryptograms were life-and-death exercises in abstract thinking.

He goes on to say that we learned to track from the animals ourselves, back when we were closer to those animals in every way than we are now. In a sense, like Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli in The Jungle Book, we were schooled by other animals. They taught us how to read. We shared their food, their environment, and many of their skills, and then we shed those skills as we developed new tools of our own. Some of us return to the woods, or even take classes, to regain a measure of that lost knowledge. But most of us simply move on.

GPS marks another graduation, and delivers another set of once-vital skills to hobbyists. And the only reason that that map felt more comfortable on my lap was that GPS is still in its early days. For now, it's more attuned more to Google's robotic cars than to humans. That will change, and so will we.


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