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Global Impositioning Systems - Is GPS harming our sense of direction? (walrusmagazine.com)
19 points by tortilla on Oct 23, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 12 comments

I find that it has greatly improved my sense of direction. I live in an area where the roads are not always a grid (to put it lightly... having lots of lakes is fun for everyone but the civil engineers), and the GPS device has helped me correct my mental map of my area (which I am also relatively new to) several times now where I was off by as much as 30 or 60 degrees in what direction I thought I was going. (Between trees, clouds, and the fact that you probably shouldn't be staring at the sun while driving, if it weren't out-of-view most of the time anyhow, I find most conventional absolute cues to be useless.)

I suspect that rather than being an absolute problem, it has more to do with how you use it. Using it exclusively in turn-by-turn mode, such that it never displays any context beyond the next turn, is probably a bad idea. Using it zoomed out so it shows the surrounding half-mile or so (or more on highways) is what I find helpful. I never wanted to find alternate routes to things before because you just never know what on earth a road is going to do without a map (dead end? immediately shoot off in the wrong direction? who knows?), and the GPS unit is a map convenient enough to actually use. Even when I use it to travel to areas I've never been to, it helps me strongly orient myself and learn the 'lay of the land' in a way that simply driving once through an area, following your host to some specific place, really can't. It's like having psychic knowledge of the area you're in.

GPS is eliminating our sense of direction, not just harming it.

Now if you view GPS as a tool like fire or clothes, that's progress. If you view it as a crutch that prevents skill acquisition like googling for papers or Cliff's Notes, that's worrying.

Either claim seems extreme. But I know that any future war will include attacks on GPS. And I'm really fascinated at how society will respond to that. After all, it's not like in the past a missile could take out "fire" "language" or "clothes" Those were ideas. GPS is a computer system.

Absolutely. I have to really pay attention when driving with the navigator on if I want to find my way on foot later in the town that I'm visiting, especially find the car again.

This never was a problem before, but then again, then I would get lost while still in the car.

Amazing how quickly you can get dependent on a piece of technology. The movie 'the knowledge' deals, amongst other things with knowing every nook and cranny of London, that's no longer part of the course I guess. Miss TomTom will take care of that one for you.

Sometimes scary stuff happens: Once I was driving in Budapest and the navigator told me to turn right at the end of the street, right into about 6 lanes of oncoming traffic. Amazing how fast you can back up if you have to!

Yes. In the same way as the invention of fire harmed our digestive system and the invention of clothes made us less resistant to cold.

Short comment: Only really relevant if you think navigation is an irrelevant skill, and replacing it doesn't matter.

Longer comment ...

Nice, neat, glib, clever, and completely ignoring the research that's starting to come out in response to the plethora of anecdotes.

People used to be able to add columns of figures without difficulty, and now they generally can't add two 2-digit numbers. People used to be able to make change, and now they rely on the till to tell them how much change to give.

Maybe these are skills people don't need, but they are skills that have declined at the same time technology was introduced. Furthermore, places where the technology has not been introduced, the skills remain. I won't argue cause and effect, I'll leave you to speculate.

People now buy gadgets for "brain training" and guess what - they make you do sums! Wow! Calculators that make you do the work!

It's true that fire gave us more and better food, and it's true that better clothes have made it possible to live and work in harsher climates, but the point remains. Research is starting to show that people's abilities to navigate are declining.

Maybe it doesn't matter, maybe it's a good thing, but dismissing it as glibly as you have simply seems to miss the point.

I'm not pining for the old days. I reach for a calculator as easily as the next person. But when someone today said they'd bought 400 Christmas cards for ukp95, then couldn't decide if that meant they'd been 24p each or 2.40 each, that's a concern. I'm equally concerned when someone tried to find my house recently and turned up three hours late. We're not on his SatNav map, and he couldn't read the map.

Maybe it doesn't matter, but it's not in the same class as fire or clothes or glasses or pottery to keep food or sewerage to take waste away or any of the other technological marvels we take for granted.

"Research is starting to show that people's abilities to navigate are declining."

Here's the upside: Thanks to GPS, more people are willing to go to more new places because there's less fear for getting lost. It's a social win.

They're actually 0.24p each :P

No, they're ukp0.24, or 24p. Your comment is like saying that you've added your 0.02c. Two cents is $0.02.

In case it is the souce of your confusion, UKP is "UK pounds sterling" and "p" is "pence". There are 100p in 1 UKP.

Ah ok that makes sense :-)

The general market standard seems to be to use GBP for pounds and GBX (sometimes GBp) for pence, so the ukp threw me

I noticed that I stopped learning my way to new places a couple weeks after I bought a GPS.

To fix that, I only use the GPS for the first trip to someplace new. It feels much more like a tool than a crutch now.

It's like with any skill obsoleted by technology: as long as everything works now and the uptime of the social system keeps growing, nobody has to suffer. But if, or when, the illusion breaks, there will be many people taking the hit big time.

Albeit a bit far-fetched, navigation with only GPS might be one. Somebody suggested the irrelevance of basic arithmetics in these times of calculators and cash registers. Most of us haven't had their life depend on hunting skills for decades, not to mention the art of keeping lambs and turning them into warm clothes. So there are all kinds of things that just might save us in the event of technological or cultural failure if we still knew how to do it.

But then there's the thing that we can't know what's going to happen. It might be that I will never need to navigate myself anymore, or calculate change. But I can't know. And on the other hand, holding on to old skills just for the sake of security sounds stupid as well. Exaggerating, we might learn to live like cavemen in order to drop any dependence on current culture and technological advances, and then something else happens that we can't handle, and then us cavemen die.

If something happens and humans need to take the hit, there are a few points to consider:

* humans are damn imaginative and very much capable of learning when they have to;

* on the other hand, some of us would just die because they aren't. I wouldn't say survival of the fittest but survival of the most flexible;

* then again, life isn't a right per se -- in the end it's more like a struggle and has always been.

If somebody can't run his life without GPS, he might not do well if his living environment changes. Then again, it might be a good time to learn to do that.

Nobody has guaranteed us that everything's always going to work out for us unless we actually invest time and effort in learning new things and constantly changing ourselves to match the actuality.

Here's another report, this time from July 2009.


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