My sense of direction is weak at best. Okay, being really honest, I got lost in my bathroom during a power outage. I need all the help I can get when driving somewhere I have never been before. So for my birthday last year my parents got me a Global Positioning System or a GPS. It has been a lifesaver, the only way I managed to get a friend to the hospital or my sister all over creation to visit or drop off her friends. But GPS devices are eliminating basic map reading skills and disengaging people in a way that is dangerous both mentally and physically.
It’s true that GPS devices use a wide variety of regularly updated maps. However the function of just following the little arrow or picture of a car removes any really reading from the situation. The technology determines the shortest route or the one that avoids highways or can even choose a route with less traffic. Most devices also work for walking or biking. All you have to do is plug in a street address. Most GPS devices actually talk to you, calling out distances until you “Turn left!” There is no analyzing the route or even the moves the GPS takes you. Users become completely disengaged, zombies moving without thinking about the place or the time.
As a child, I often found myself struggling to understand where exactly I
was and how I had gotten there. Spatial reasoning comes to some faster
than others, but visual learning is crucial to facilitating that type of
learning. Kids need to see how things are put together, how they
connected and work in the same space. This is one of the major goals of
geography, and one of the best ways to do so is to teach map reading. To
help me better understand space and place my dad would show me the
cities and the countries I would read about in books or see in movies.
He would take me to an Atlas and show me the city then the country then
the continent and finally the world to help me understand place, how the
world in what I was reading or watching related to the world I was
These devices are teaching people they don’t need to know where they are
going, that they just have to follow the GPS. Recently, a few of my
coworkers and I took a cab to a usability testing for the new National
Geographic Education website and our driver was so dependent on the GPS
in his phone that we were nearly split in two on the highway when the
display was unclear about an exit. While beneficial for everyone who
ever needed directions, these devices remove any real involvement with
the maps. They are just pointing, tracing a line for the user to follow.
While this is a very concerning problem in terms of education, it’s also
terribly dangerous. Here is an article published in June 2010 by the
Washington Post on the hazards of blindly following GPS devices. The
author of the article admits himself that he just follows his GPS as did
the woman who was hit by a car while following Google Maps on her
Blackberry. It’s hard not too with automatic cars and directions from a
satellite relayed back to you and spoken allowed.
While removing a person’s sense of place, GPS devices also affect a
person’s sense of time. Driving anywhere familiar, or for a long period
of time, it becomes hard not to naturally zone out. Fighting this the
urge to zone out is hard enough without a GPS, but when directions are
called out to you and time is divided up into how many miles are between
you and your next turn, the way time passes changes as well. In my
personal experience with this loss of place and time while driving with a
GPS, I have always been struck by the thought that it must be similar
to how astronauts in space feel, minus the lack of gravity. It’s the
same disconcerting feeling you get when flying between several different
time zones when you suddenly loose half or even a whole day. However
you look at it, space and time are the basic ways we understand and
organize our surroundings.
Map reading doesn’t just give a physical sense of place of our bodies,
or our homes, or our nations. It also gives us a sense of place in time,
in the grander schemes of the world, in evolution. Without it one of
the best methods of understanding where we are and where we have come
from is lost. I’m not condemning the GPS in fact it has saved my life a
number of times. However I am warning that as technology develops, the
basic skills it is meant to facilitate are still important to the growth
and development of children.
Photos courtesy of My Wonderful World:
GPS in D.C.–Krista Rossow
-Alison Enzinna for My Wonderful World