4

Your GPS is making you miss out on reality

GPS data on a handycam recorder.

Ari Schulman is a senior editor at the tech journal The New Atlantis. He's been been thinking about the philosophy of GPS devices quite a lot and he thinks that they're not 100 percent beneficial.

"Say you want to go to the Grand Canyon," he says. "There's the whole trip that you take there and when you're navigating on the way there. If you are doing it without the GPS, you would probably have taken time beforehand to sit down, look at your route, plan it out and say, 'OK I'm going to be traveling on I-10, take a state road.' And you internalize and check as you go along, maybe you get lost along the way, but you place yourself into the world as you're driving, and direct this experience sort of on your own.

"When you're using a GPS device, not necessarily, but the way that most people use them and the way they've been designed, there's a sort of turn-by-turn system and it feeds you directions as you do this. Do you'll sort of go along, and it'll say 'turn left here and go 100 miles, turn right here,' and you don't have really a sense of connection to the place before you. So there's sort of a difference in the way you're attuned to the world. When you have the directions internalized, you have to know inside you what's going to be in front of you, and look for that out in the world. You have a sense of traveling this amount of distance and then going right. And when you're using the GPS device, it tends to isolate you from the world, insulate you from what you're seeing. So you're just sort of taking directions and don't really need to look at what's in front of you in order to see that. The old cliche is it's the journey, not the destination. This technology inverts that and makes it about the destination."

So what's the overall effect of that? Schulman says, "It's supposed to promise us a better way of being and existing in world. And the way the devices are now at any rate seems to kind of disconnect us from that. To replace the experience they're telling us to have, or the experience we're getting through the phone for the experience we would have in the actual real world. And if that's something we care about -- and obviously we do because we're creating these technologies supposedly to help us out -- then we ought to think about way they place us in world and the way they cause us to interact with the world. If you look at it in broader social level, I would guess that this would play into a larger trend we've been seeing in this country for a very long time, which is the declining significance of place and locality. And that could have all sorts of social and political consequences. If we're less tied to what's around us, more mobile, less attuned to the people and the things that are immediately in the places that we live."

Also in this program, New York hacker Matt Richardson is a genius. Why? He invented a device to mute the TV automatically whenever annoying celebrities start talking. Thank you, Matt.

Matt will be demonstrating his invention, the Enough Already Machine, at Maker Faire in New York on September 17th.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.
Log in to post4 Comments

@Kristi

I too have fond memories of being the 'family navigator'on our summer trips; however, I think you're being a little hard on technology. To start with, we need to differentiate between stand alone GPS units, and the navigation feature on a smartphone, because they are vastly different experiences. My four-year old Tom Tom was servicable for about two years, after which the maps were so outdated it was basically useless. If your Garmin hasn't been updated since you bought it, I would either update it or put it with all of your other old maps...

Personally, I was unwilling to spring for the overpriced map update and upgraded my phone instead; and although I am much better at navigating my daily commute, it has served very well for monthly business trips out of the area. It isn't perfect, but I can assure you that I've been led astray many more times by people reading maps (myself included), than I have by either my Tom Tom, or my phone.

Ultimately, you are right, people should be conscious of how technology impacts their lives; however, there will come a time when paper maps go the way of horse-drawn carriages.

I started to learn to read maps when I was 7 or 8 years old, when I would help my Mom navigate new cities that we were always moving to. The first part of going someplace new has always been looking at the map, the routes available between here and there, and writing down turn-by-turn directions. Looking for potentially challenging intersections and trying to imagine what certain neighborhoods might look like were part of the process. Even when someone gave me directions to get someplace, I usually consulted a map as well to help me create a sort of internal image in my brain of where I was going. Several years ago we bought a Garmin GPS and I would say about one experience out of every five with the thing is a good one. The rest of the time it directs me to go the wrong way on an on-ramp, or drive on some unpaved road, or take a much longer route with more traffic and traffic lights than I would take at my own discretion (which I then use, because -- duh.)

I still have the Garmin in my car, it gets used once every few weeks if I find I've crossed from a familiar area to an unfamiliar one and there's someplace I need to be in a hurry. Though I could do what I used to do and pull over and look at my map.

Some people are really content with their GPS, and as long as they're not directing them the wrong way on an on-ramp, that's fine, but I think it's valuable to be conscious of the differences between technologies, and occasionally ask ourselves "what's different now in my experience of how I'm doing this, and am I okay with that difference?" I am really not okay with the way the GPS does things, so I use it as a last resort and I always use my discretion.

What happened, John? Incredibly slow day? Mr. Schulman is reaching far beyond the bounds of observation to give us the benefit of his subjective experiences, apparently. Or perhaps these were the rambling justifications of a closet technophobe. But really, who cares? Surely there must have been something more interesting to put into the program.

Honestly, this seems like a bit of a stretch, as I'm pretty sure that you can find something negative about everything in our daily lives. If we're going to bash GPS devices for disconnecting us from the 'experience', why not bash maps too; after all, wouldn't our experience be more immersive if we stopped to ask directions from the locals?

With Generous Support From...