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The lost art of getting lost: We’re losing our ability to navigate

By Angela Reinhardt, Staff Writer

areinhardt@pickensprogress.com

            Remember “The Map Song” from Dora The Explorer? It was sung by the aptly-titled “Map,” a anthropomorphized rolled-up map who gives Dora directions when she doesn’t know where to go.

            “If there’s a place you got to go, I’m the one you need to know,” Map sings. “I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map…”

            It’s true, Map. You can get us to where we want to go — but only if we know how to use you. The problem is that these days we don’t have to figure out how to get to where we’re going by manually charting and following a course. All we have to do now is plug our destination into a GPS and it tells us exactly where to go. No brain-powered navigation needed.

            Over the past few months I’ve heard stories about teens who lost their smartphone and literally could not figure out how to drive back to their city without it. They had to be rescued by friends or family. I’ve been concerned for a while that people (myself included) are too reliant on GPS, and then these stories rushed in like an unwelcome reality check, the alarming culmination of years of giving away our independence to technology. In a very short period of time we’ve gone from being a paper-map/written-directions society to our teenagers (and most adults, too) not being able to get around unfamiliar places without GPS navigation.

            But why does it matter if we’ve got our tech to keep us from ever getting lost again?

            There’s no arguing that GPS navigation is helpful and convenient. I use it regularly. But it’s deeply concerning that we’ve become so dependent we’d be rendered helpless if it’s not accessible for some reason. Our collective ability to navigate is atrophying, dying on the tech-laden vine.

            An Atlantic article in a series about how technology reframes our understanding of the world makes an excellent point. “If humankind lost its ability to navigate, there would be huge implications for the world around us. How would cities, towns, streets, and plazas be designed to accommodate for the fact that, once torn away from our phones, we would struggle to get around?…Given how many people are prone to driving into rivers just because their phone told them to, there is a chance we’re headed toward a world where spatial awareness is at risk.”

            Before Google Maps, everyone had maps in their vehicles, and the first thing you did when you got to a new state is buy a new map. You’d get lost sometimes, but the next trip you’d remember more details about the route. I delivered pizza when I was in college, before smartphones, and before Google Maps launched in 2005. We had a giant map of the delivery area inside the store, and a folder of maps in the car. (MapQuest was around then, too, which provided directions you could print out or write down and take with you).

            Kostadin Kushlev, a behavioral scientist, believes the solution isn’t getting rid of our tech – and I agree. As one strategy, he suggests we program our devices to encourage more active participation when it comes to getting around.  

            “If Siri knows you frequent the neighborhood where you’re about to try a new restaurant with your friend, for instance, maybe she’ll suggest you try getting there on your own, without the help of the maps app,” he told Atlantic.

            A more empowering strategy would be for us to write out directions, or occasionally use a paper map for a trip to flex those navigation muscles (and teach our kids to do the same). My husband and I traveled via paper map not too long ago coming home from the west Florida panhandle. It was empowering, fun, and nostalgic, and we got back with more-or-less no problem (barring an unexpected, but welcome-in-the-end, detour to Mobile.)         

            Tech has made plenty of things obsolete over the years, but map reading should be thought of as fundamental skill.  (Knowing how to ask for and follow directions is helpful, too.) Sure, paper maps are harder to find these days, but with a little planning we can be sure we have the knowhow to get around all by ourselves, no GPS required. 

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