The other night, I got an out-of-the-blue text from my buddy Mix inviting my wife and I over New Year’s Day.
Absolutely … it’ll be a great time. We’ll eat lots of food, watch hockey, crack jokes, make our wives cringe with how silly we can be.
And before I leave my house, I’ll do what I always do when going to Mix’s.
I’ll plug his address into the GPS on my phone.
With a few clicks of the smartphone, the destination is inputted into a navigational app, with customized route preferences to avoid traffic, tolls and, in cities like San Francisco, even inclines. Anxiety abated, one drives to one’s destination via voice prompts and the occasional illicit glance at the constantly updating map.
But, after having arrived safely, there is the vague awareness that we don’t know how we got there. We can’t remember the landmarks along the way, and, without our handheld device, certainly couldn’t get back to our origin point. That raises the larger question: Are the navigational capacities of our smartphones making us worse navigators?
— “GPS makes you worse at navigation, but that’s ok,” Jennifer Bernstein
I’m reasonably intelligent, reasonably good at mentally getting from Point A to Point B and have a reasonably good memory, so I actually don’t know why I’m so bad at navigation.
My best guess is that I tend to zone out when I’m not driving, and am fairly myopic when I do. I see everything I need to see to the front and sides, but that’s about it, and a lot of the landmarks don’t register with me.
For example, my wife and I were at my parents’ over the weekend, and as we were going to dinner, I didn’t realize a large, shiny, bright convenience store was at the site where an abandoned bank and weed-strewn parking lot had been for decades.
When I go to Mix’s house, I’m reasonably sure of both ends of the trip, but I’ve never figured out enough of the middle to dare trying it without my GPS.
At least I’m not like the sister of a friend of mine from high school, who admitted her navigation problem was that she thought north was whatever direction she was facing.
This was how she wound up going in the wrong direction for 30 miles before realizing she was going in the wrong direction.
While research shows that use of handheld navigational devices can lead to lower spatial knowledge, that may not necessarily be the device’s fault. Those most likely to use guided route navigation are already the least confident in their own navigational capabilities; further use of navigational devices leads to a negative feedback cycle, where people become more reliant on their devices and less spatially aware.
Several years ago, my wife and I were going home from Boston — I believe from Logan Airport, which was and is easy to navigate because it was a straight shot with lots of signs — when I saw a woman driving slowly on the side of the road.
I caught a glimpse of her face as we drove by, and she looked like she was about to cry. She looked hopelessly lost and utterly frightened.
I could relate. Compounding my navigational issues is a phobia of getting lost. I literally am afraid that if I get lost, I’ll never be able to find my way back.
So using a GPS — even though it has sent me on a couple bizarre trips that didn’t end up in a lake — isn’t just good for getting me from place to place, but as one of those people least confident in my own navigational capabilities, it makes me more comfortable that everything is going to be OK.
The funny thing is that my brother is brilliant at reading maps and can get himself out of any situation, and my wife is also a brilliant navigator, to the point where she can figure out the New York and London subway systems in no time at all.
People are less likely to remember a route when they use guided navigation. Without their device, regular GPS users take longer to negotiate a route, travel more slowly and make larger navigational errors.
I almost had a disaster a few weeks ago.
I was going somewhere for the first time, and so naturally I used my GPS to get there.
But when I typed in my home address to get back … nothing.
This is what happens when cellphone service is sketchy at best. Because I had the GPS going the entire way to where I was going, it stayed on the whole time, but it wouldn’t work when my turned my phone back on a couple hours later.
And I couldn’t call my wife to get directions from her … because there was no cell service.
“Think, Bill … think.”
I remembered the last couple turns before where I had gone, so I knew just to reverse those.
I recalled passing a gas station not too far back, so there would be a place to stop for directions if I needed to (I am definitely NOT the stereotypical guy in that regard), and was pretty sure I had also seen a sign for the highway that goes through where I live, so that would be there as a last resort.
Fortunately, once I cleared the trees and got to a more-settled part of town, the cell service came back, and I got home without any issues.
And hey, I actually applied some navigational skills!
But before I went again, I took a screenshot of the directions home, just in case.