Lost Two Miles from Home: The Role and the Risk of GPS Devices

Yesterday I got lost driving two miles outside my apartment.  It is hard to find an excuse since I was heading to a place that I have been at nearly twice a week since I’ve moved to Austin.  But I think I found two.

  1. My wife is usually the one at the wheel here in Texas.
  2. When I am at the wheel, I usually have a GPS device leading me from Point A to Point B.

These excuses hardly hold water.  Either way, I became acutely aware that I have little knowledge of my near surroundings, that is, my placehere in Austin.  The question is:  Will the continual use, or dependence, on a GPS device increase my knowledge of this place over time, or will it inhibit it.  And does it really matter that I know this place, if I arrive where I need to be?   What does a knowledge of place really involve?

Rather than answer these questions now, I want only to direct readers to a number of excellent articles dealing with the development and subsequent permeation of digital maps in everyday life.

This article reveals the unimaginable work of data collection and organization underlying every Google map.  Rarely would I consider a map’s “depth” but when you think of the many layers of data, (speed limits, one-way streets, traffic flow, etc.) involved in your Google Map it really boggles the mind. This is why the author sees Google Street-View vans (and their military grade spy-planes and submarine we could add) as the equivalent of real world “web-crawlers,” collecting multiple layers of data to fine tune the companies maps.  

Excerpt:  “It’s probably better not to think of Google Maps as a thing like a paper map. Geographic information systems represent a jump from paper maps like the abacus to the computer. “I honestly think we’re seeing a more profound change, for map-making, than the switch from manuscript to print in the Renaissance.”

Remember the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter?  Well Burkeman argues that we may not need to suspend reality anymore to believe that a one-to-one real time map of the world is possible.  Yet he takes this development a step further than Madrigal and asks readers to consider how “the boundary between consulting a map and interacting with the world outside is blurring.”  When our maps can send us reviews of restaurants, or take us to the nearest Starbucks, we would do well to consider how our maps are literally “mapping” us.  

Excerpt: “It can be easy to assume that maps are objective: that the world is out there, and that a good map is one that represents it accurately. But that’s not true. Any square mile of the planet can be described in an infinite number of ways: in terms of its natural features, its weather, its socio-economic profile, or what you can buy in the shops there. Traditionally, the interests reflected in maps have been those of states and their armies, because they were the ones who did the mapmaking….Now, the power is shifting. “Every map,” the cartography curator Lucy Fellowes once said, “is someone’s way of getting you to look at the world his or her way.” What happens when we come to see the world, to a significant extent, through the eyes of a handful of big companies based in California? You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist, or an anti-corporate crusader, to wonder about the subtle ways in which their values and interests might come to shape our lives.”

I enjoy the thoughtful blog posts of Michael Sacasas on culture and technology.  In this particular post he analyzes the mindset of the GPS user which is “ends” oriented, and inevitably reduces the “place” between Point A and Point B into “space” to be traversed.  Similarly most techies are ends-oriented, failing to see the importance of the processes that are required to obtain certain ends.

ExcerptWhen I plug an address into a GPS device, I expect one thing: an efficient and unambiguous set of directions to get me from where I am to where I want to go. My attention is distributed between the device and the features of the place. The journey is eclipsed, the places in between become merely space traversed. In this respect, GPS becomes a sign of the age in its struggle to consider anything but the accomplishment of ends with little regard for the means by which the ends are accomplished. We seem to forget, in other words, that there are goods attending the particular path by which a goal is pursued that are independent of the accomplishment of that goal. 

It has been a while since I’ve read this, but noticing that it is cited by Sacasas in the last blog post, I felt I should include it.  Shulman’s piece similarly explores the use and the user of GPS devices, and how this is radically transforming our conceptions of place.

Excerpt: “But GPS navigation, in its present form, seems to do quite the opposite: it dulls our receptivity to our surroundings by granting us the supposed luxury of not having to pay attention to them at all. In travel facilitated by “location awareness,” we begin to encounter places not by attending to what they present to us, but by bringing our expectations to them, and demanding that they perform for us as advertised. In traveling through “augmented reality,” even the need for places to perform begins to fade, as our openness to the world gives way to the desire to paper over it entirely. It is an admission of our seeming distrust in places to be sufficiently interesting on their own.” 

To conclude, this last link will not take you to a thoughtful article, but rather to a series of images recently provided by Google of its facilities and staff.  I included this because it is cool.  Very cool.  But it is also important to understand the storage facilities required to store all of the data talked about in this post.  Additionally, our email communication, map searches, google searches and whatever else we do in connection to Google are stored somewhere.

It is easy to assume our digital existence is immaterial because we are increasingly disconnected from the processes that are involved in communication.  For example, writing a letter is more intimate than an email and an email is (usually) more intimate than a text in terms of my involvement in the process.  When a similar transition from paper maps to Google maps is similarly disconnecting me from the processes of knowing a place intimately, it is worthwhile to wonder if this matters.  Which is what I will do.  In another post.


2 thoughts on “Lost Two Miles from Home: The Role and the Risk of GPS Devices

  1. The crux of my travel philosophy: there’s more than one way to skin a route. I challenge myself to find new ways to get from Point A to Point B, sometimes even without the use of a map. Trips I have made thousands of times–such as from college to home back in Missouri–thus become actual “journeys,” and every time one sees something new, meets someone new. I would bet that I know more ways between Springfield and Butler (or Bolivar and Butler) than most people ever care to discover. Sometimes it took two hours, sometimes three, but it was never boring.

    Addendum: Great side tip: Never get gas in the same place twice (in a row, at least). It’s amazing how many people you meet this way…

    • I like your travel philosophy and will start to challenge myself to get out and explore Austin “sans” GPS. I would agree with you that meeting new people is one of the best parts of any road trip.

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