Monday, February 6, 2012

GPS -- Is It A Map To Nowheresville?

Few maps could actually lead you safely through the hills and valleys on the Isle of Skye.
 You have to be able to read the signs of the terrain

When’s the last time you looked at a map?  And, no, I don’t mean the last time you googled the location of that new restaurant everyone was talking about.  When was the last time you unfolded a map or opened a road atlas to get from here to there?

I love maps.  I love studying road atlases, finding landmarks, estimating distances, and looking for alternative routes.  I want to know what rivers are in the area and what’s the history behind the odd names that mark the route.  What could a GPS do for me that a good road atlas couldn’t?

Yet I’m considering whether or not I should buy a GPS before I head to France this summer.

This decision leaves me of two minds.  First, I remember last year’s rented car that came without a navigation system.  My husband and I spent a tremendous amount of time circling small towns looking for exits, any road signs that would take us to the route we wanted.  After awhile we realized that France doesn’t regularly make signs that point you to roads (as did our carefully googled directions).  French road and highway signs inform you of one or two towns you’d find if you turned off here.  Eventually we came to consult our pocket atlas for town names instead of route numbers to understand the entire region as we advanced toward our destination.  Maybe we could have used a GPS.

On the other hand, the previous year I had a car with GPS for my trip to the Loire Valley.  It became a mighty contest of wills (I wrote about it here) between my French electronic dictator who wanted me only to take major highways and moi who wanted to take the scenic route.  We finally made a truce when my directional instincts failed occasionally upon hitting town centers where a half dozen roads radiated out like spokes on a wheel.  It would set me on the right path then I’d turn it off and check back with my atlas, familiarizing myself with all the village names along the route to keep myself on track before the next big town.

A recent article by Julie Frankenstein in the New York Times discusses the effect on our brains as we shift now from physical maps and landmarks to a reliance on technology to get where we’re going.  As GPS units become standard in cars and on our phones for walking trips, we risk losing the “muscles” of our cognitive mapping abilities because we lack a spatial context for where we are.  The human brain is quite good at developing “mental maps” of an area, the research explains.  We see landmarks and remember them in spatial relation to other landmarks along the route we travel.

However, if all we see on the GPS screen is the road in front of us from point A to point B, when the technology breaks down, we find ourselves completely lost.  Since the GPS, by default, maps the fastest and most efficient route, we don’t know the alternatives.
Only the cognitive map of our guide kept us on the trail
and off the rocky slopes to oblivion
Several years ago on a trip to the Isle of Skye in Scotland, my husband and I hired a guide to take us to a waterfall we had seen on a map.  When I asked him why our trail had no arrows and only a few cairns (piles of stones) to tell us we were on the right path, he said, “We don’t want to make it too easy for people who really have no business being out here in this rough country.”  So on we hiked, with our guide leading us through Scottish fog so thick I could have walked off the side of a cliff before I knew it.  Every step of that trail was tattoo’ed on his brain.  A handheld device might have gotten us to the navigational coordinate of that waterfall, but it would not have led us safely through the almost invisible bogs and the steep drop-offs on the rocky way.

What about our personal mental maps, though?  I kept my eye on that “professional” GPS arrow down the highway to undergraduate school, graduate school, university teaching, research.  Then a “road closed” sign stopped me.  Life had thrown up a barrier that my personal GPS had not anticipated. I turned this way and that, looking for a new route.  Life kept yelling “recalculating, recalculating.”  Then the system crashed and I had no mental map, no idea what my options were, whether to turn left or right.  I was stuck.  Since then I’ve found a new route to travel and am having fun building a new cognitive map from scratch.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have those turn-by-turn instructions, e.g., if you’re trying to drive in downtown Chicago or you’re trying to survive law school.  But still, the GPS can make a mistake and send you left when you should have gone right.  If you don’t have a sense of the lay of the land, if you don’t have the big picture of your life and all the options, then you can lose a lot of time before you realize you’re on a limited access highway and the next exit is twenty miles down the road and thirty miles back to where your navigational instincts had told you to turn in the first place.

If you encounter an unexpected “road closed” sign in your life and a crashed GPS, do you have a mental atlas you can open to find yourself a new route – or maybe even a new and exciting destination that you never would have seen if you kept your eye only on the lurching little arrow on a 4-inch screen instead of all the looming landmarks and warning signs around you?  Or is your personal GPS sending you, quite quickly and efficiently, straight to Nowheresville?

So, tell me.  Should I or shouldn’t I buy a GPS?  Tell us about times the GPS saved you or times you wouldn’t have even thought of using it?  For your own life destinations are you more a GPS kind of person or a road atlas type?  Share with us in the comments box how you navigate through the world and your life.

Check out these other posts also.  Leah Singer has a interesting new exercise to describe who you are.  It’s a different kind of personal mapping system that gives you a wider lay of the land, if you will.  And with Valentine’s Day bearing down on us, American ex-pat Lynn McBride gives us lessons on French, the language of love.  It’s not what you’d expect.

Sometimes when you ignore what the GPS is telling you, you find beautiful surprises


Anonymous said...

We have taken our GPS to France and loved it. The only thing is, sometimes it takes you on these teeny tiny roads where you pray you don't meet another vehicle coming from the opposite direction!

Love the GPS as metaphor. Sometimes those crashes are pretty darn surprising, but they never let me down. I always seem to end up where I'm supposed to be!

As you get closer to your annual visit, I find myself feeling a sense of anticipation, too! Thanks for another great post.

Anonymous said...

I recommend owning a GPS or installing a GPS app on your smart phone. True, they don't always work, but they work more times than they fail. And when you're in a new place, especially if there's a lot of traffic, you have to make decisions quickly. The smart phone apps are helpful (they can give you real time information and more details than a standard GPS) but some are better than others, in my experience.

As for GPS in life, I'm a big "hope for the best, plan for the worst" sort of person. Be prepared for the roadblocks, potholes, and detours, and remember that the best laid plans often go awry. But most of all, enjoy the journey. :)

Julie Farrar said...

One of my regular readers sent me a message that she was having trouble posting to my page. If anyone else is, please let me know. It's a blogger thing, I believe. I've also set it to disallow anonymous comments because I was getting spam. But here is was Olga wanted to add to the conversation:

Julie, what an interesting post. I too love maps. Not the electronic
ones, no. I don’t have a car, nor a cell phone, so a GPS is not an
option for me, but I like physical maps. Any time I travel, I buy a
map and a guide of the city I’m going to be in and navigate the
streets on foot, looking for landmarks the guide describes. I explored
New York and San Francisco, London and Toronto that way. I feel like a
Columbus on his first voyage when I walk the streets of a new city
with a map in my hands. I probably look like a bumbling tourist too,
but I don’t care. It’s always an adventure.

Carrie Daws said...

I like the compromise idea. Have one for those moments of frustration when you feel totally backwards and lost ... but remember it has an "off" button for those moments when you simply want to explore and see what might not have made it on your "To See" list.

Julie Farrar said...

I think you're right, Carrie. We need to use the "off" button a little more often. Like, I need to turn off the computer now.

brenda said...

I use my phone for directions - on the road directions. As for me, my life, I am more of fly by the seat of pants kind of woman. I cook the same way. I don't do well with rules and dot-to-dot. I have tried, but I lose interest.

Tami Clayton said...

I, too, love maps! I secretly think sometimes I was a cartographer in a previous life. :)

I love your analogy of our own mental maps, especially as they relate to our professions and careers.

Do I think you should get a GPS? Sure! You always have the option of using a paper map whenever you want. I like to have options... :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention and I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Anonymous said...

Julie, I cannot under any circumstance, use a GPS. What a nightmare! They take you through the longest routes, using off beaten paths, and where the roads are so lonely, if your car breaks down, you're in trouble. The last time I used one, I was coming back from the Raleigh airport in NC. It took me two hours to return using the GPS, when it normally takes my sister one without the GPS! That said, I'm better at reading maps. And I'm even better printing out instructions from Google Maps and following those! :)

Cora said...

Neat post idea linking the GPS to traveling the road of life. I prefer to get my bearings by visualizing a map of where I am and where I'm going. I have used GPS but it's sent me the wrong way more than once. I think an over dependence on GPS might just change our brains in ways that might not be good. In life, I prefer to get lost sometimes, just to meet the unexpected. I like exploring.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! Yes, I've had times when my GPS saved the day and other times I found myself taking a circuitous route through horrific construction zones when a map would have led me to more freeways.

The metaphor about maps/GPS and life was as terrific and emotive as those pictures you posted.

At my age, I like to depend on my brain's cognitive skills as much as I can. I memorize telephone numbers, plan routes using maps, work math by hand. It's the only brain I've got so I like to keep those live wires popping!

Anonymous said...

I have a GPS and I use it often - I just have to get my goalie to his/her hockey game in an unknown town/unknown arena on time. That said I admit over-reliance on it and wish I had the nerve to shut it off and take the road less travelled. I still have maps in my gloves compartment (which has NEVER been used to store glove btw).

Julie Farrar said...

Ooo, memorizing phone numbers. Is that ever a lost art. I don't think I could tell you my sisters' cell numbers since they're on speed dial. I guess this doesn't have to be either/or. Using both can get us there, but at different paces and different routes. Change is good.

nancy said...

When it comes to directions, I need all the help I can get, Julie, so I vote for getting a GPS! Like you, however, I love ouring over maps and always take them with me on my trips, too.

Personally, I identify with Jana Stanfield's song: "I'm Not Lost, I'm Exploring," whenever I travel, through life as well as on vacation. Somehow I always seem to end up somewhere interesting, which makes for a great story later on at the very least.

Julie Farrar said...

I don't know that song, Nancy. But it's exactly how I feel.

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