GPS: What We Lose By Using It

How is it that we can walk unfamiliar streets while maintaining a sense of direction? Come up with shortcuts on the fly, in places we’ve never traveled? The answer is the complex mental map in our brains. This feature of our cognition is easily taken for granted, but it’s also critical to our species’s evolutionary success.

A beguiling mix of storytelling and science, Michael Bond’s From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing Our Way covers the full spectrum of human navigation and spatial understanding. In an age of GPS and Google Maps, Bond urges us to exercise our evolved navigation skills and reap the surprising cognitive rewards. Here is a brief excerpt.

The aesthetic implications of GPS are potentially as serious as the practical ones. We cannot move through the world unaware and not be affected by our lack of knowledge. Memories of places are narratives of what it felt like to be there, and when we pass through oblivious we miss the chance to develop a rich understanding, and a rich remembering. There is no ‘unmediated, raw experience of the real’, as the cognitive neuroscientist Colin Ellard writes in his book Places of the Heart. Head down, eyes on the dot, we also pass up the chance of interacting with other people. Wayfinding is an inherently social activity; whether we use a map, a satnav, local signs or word of mouth, we depend on the knowledge of others. Asking directions is a great way to tap into the culture of a place, but that’s the last thing we’re likely to do when we’re relying on a smartphone. ‘Digitally connected, socially disconnected,’ is how one research team summed up the effects of mobile technology on real-world reciprocity.

GPS offers the possibility of never being lost. Some people find the thought appealing, but it may not be quite what they imagine. When we live in permanent geographic certainty, we lose something of ourselves, some possibility of growth. As Rebecca Solnit writes in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, her meditation on certainty and unknowing, ‘Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.’ She goes on to cite Henry David Thoreau, whose two years in his cabin at Walden Pond was an attempt to live ‘deliberately’ and ‘suck all the marrow of life’. ‘Not till we are lost,’ he said, ‘in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.’

We are still some way from a world in which it is impossible to be lost. Nevertheless, some people go to great lengths to remain in terra incognita, to keep open the possibility of the infinite. The aim of modern-day flâneurs and psychogeographers is to wander with- out destination, map or phone. A common approach is ‘algorithmic walking’, which involves following a predetermined sequence of instructions — left at the first junction, right at the second, left at the third and so on — and seeing where it takes them.

There are endless variations on this theme. Robert Macfarlane, best known for his reflections on wilderness, recommends placing a glass upside down on a street map of the city where you live, drawing around its edge and then going out and walking the circle, keeping as close as possible to the curve. (A GPS app would never suggest you walk a curve.) The psychologist and psychogeographer Alexander Bridger, co-founder of a group of perambulatory radicals known as the Loiterers Resistance Movement, likes to go one better and navigate across town using the map of a different city. This takes some imagination and needless to say will get you lost pretty quickly.

Some psychogeographers eschew navigation aids of any kind. Tina Richardson, a leading scholar in the movement, has this advice: ‘Dump the map in the wheelie bin. Go to the nearest bus stop and get on the first bus that comes along. Get off when you feel you are far enough away from home that the area is unfamiliar. Begin your walk here.’ If this sounds too retrograde, you might consider using a ‘serendipity app’ to help you rebel against GPS-determinism and artfully lose yourself in a city. Once you’ve got your head around the idea of having to download an app to subvert the apps that have appropriated your freedom, this can be a fun way to surrender to your surroundings. Popular examples include Serendipitor, a navigation tool that sends you on unexpected detours, Drift, whose aim is to get you lost in familiar places, and Dérive, which every three minutes sends you a task designed to nudge you out of your habitual routes and encourage random exploration. For example: ‘Find something edgy. Walk along it for a bit’, ‘Move a few hundred metres towards the nearest body of water’ or ‘Follow someone with a camera until they take a picture.’ The hope is that you will find something important when you’re looking for something else, which is what all wanderers aspire to.

When you’re used to navigational certitude, such playfulness can be hard to embrace. In 2011, the computer scientist Ben Kirman created GetLostBot, an app which tracks the places you visit and sends you directions to different ones if your movements become too predictable.* For instance, if you eat at the same cafe every lunchtime, it will send you directions to an alternative one, without telling you where you are going. The idea received extensive press coverage and hundreds of wannabe explorers downloaded it, but after a few weeks, Kirman noticed that only a small percentage had completed any of the tasks. It seemed that either they didn’t like being reminded of how repetitive their lives were, or they found it too difficult to change. One user complained that the app had told him to stop going to church every Sunday and visit a nearby mosque instead. He thought it was a result of a bug in the software.

The problem with many standard navigation apps is that they work too well. They make navigation effortless, ensuring that we arrive at our destination as if we’d been teleported there. It would certainly improve the experience if they had some of the serendipity of Dérive and GetLostBot, or if they offered a perspective beyond the one immediately before us — for example, if they presented us with information about landmarks and places, architecture and history or the proximity of nearby sights, or showed us a bird’s-eye view to augment our egocentric frame of reference. That way we’d see more, remember more, feel more — and we’d still arrive on time.