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With GPS, Are We 'Never Lost Again'?

Navigating the roads with a smartphone device. (Foundry/Pixabay)
Navigating the roads with a smartphone device. (Foundry/Pixabay)
This article is more than 5 years old.

With Jane Clayson 

How we navigate the world, now. The inside story of the Google mapping revolution. Turn left, at the roundabout.


Bill Kilday, a VP of marketing for the Silicon Valley software company Niantic. His new book is titled, "Never Lost Again: The Google Mapping Revolution That Sparked New Industries and Augmented Our Reality" (@bkilday)

John Huth, particle physicist at Harvard, he also teaches a course there called Finding Our Way and is author of the book, "The Lost Art of Finding Our Way." (@JohnHuth1)


On how the technology became widespread: 

Kilday: "With the advent of mobile phones, you started to have calls in to 911 from people who were in distress, who were lost, who were in an accident, who were in some sort of situation that they needed help, and they [dispatchers] didn't know where they were, they weren't tethered to a landline anymore. And so Congress, in the late 90s, started to require that the wireless carriers and handset manufacturers needed to be able to report to 911 where that caller was. That ended up being this unexpected fundamental shift in technology. Becuase those GPS devices were there, suddenly it started to enable a whole new set of capabilites and services that hadn't existed before."

On the pros and cons of using GPS technology and phones to navigate: 

Huth: "The upside, clearly, is you have a map of your environment. And it often helps. The problem, as I see it, is the part of our brain which is wired to do voyages, journeys — this kind of thing is something that doesn't get used. There was a recent study in London of people that navigated through the London streets either using a GPS, or using their native abilities. And this part of the brain was completely dark for people that used the GPS, and was fully lit up by people who were navigating.

"You're getting a very narrow window on the world -- you're just seeing what the next turn is, and you aren't getting this large picture view."

John Huth, on what it's like using a GPS

The other aspect which is fairly important: the same part of the brain — the hippocampus — is responsible for declarative memory, that is to say the memory that we use if you call up the name of your favorite high school teacher, for example. And it's also involved in how we plan for the future. So the idea that we turn off this important part of our brain is a little scary to me.

You're getting a very narrow window on the world — you're just seeing what the next turn is, and you aren't getting this large picture view. And the way our brains operate is to have a large picture view of the environment, as if we're on a magic carpet hovering over the environment. We tend to lose this with GPS."

From The Reading List:

Excerpt from "Never Lost Again": 

Outside Magazine: "Is Your GPS Scrambling Your Brain?" — "After stopping on a desolate gravel road next to a sign for a gas station, Santillan got the feeling that the voice might be steering him wrong. He’d already been driving for nearly an hour, yet the ETA on the GPS put his arrival time at around 5:20 P.M., eight hours later. He reentered his destination and got the same result. Though he sensed that something was off, he made a conscious choice to trust the machine. He had come here for an adventure, after all, and maybe it knew where he was really supposed to go.

The farther he drove, the fewer cars he saw. The roads became icier. Sleeplessness fogged his brain, and his empty stomach churned. The only stations he could find on the radio were airing strange talk shows in Icelandic. He hadn’t set up his phone for international use, so that was no help. At around 2 P.M., as his tires skidded along a narrow mountain road that skirted a steep cliff, he knew that the device had failed him.

He was lost."

The New York Times (Opinion): "Losing Our Way in the World" — "The next day, news broke of a huge search-and-rescue operation for two young women in kayaks who had gotten lost in the fog. The day after that, I learned that the body of one of them had been recovered. The other body was never found. They were paddling at the same time as I was, and within a half-mile of me.

I was haunted by survivor’s guilt. Why were there two such divergent outcomes to the same situation? The only answer was the simple observation of the wind direction before I left the shore.

Over the next year I buried myself in a self-imposed program to learn navigation through environmental clues. I read about the traditional navigational schemes of Polynesians, how they memorized the positions of rising and setting stars to form a natural compass. The Norse had a system of telling time and orientation based on the position of the sun, with its low arc across the sky at the latitudes of Iceland and Greenland.

... After a year of this endeavor, something dawned on me: the way I viewed the world had palpably changed. The sun looked different, as did the stars. While the ocean didn’t accommodate my “human” need for meaning, a different sense emerged from the wave patterns that conveyed the presence of winds, shoals, coastlines and distant storms."

It’s hard to remember what life was like before satellites, cell phone towers, cell phones themselves and that great mega-computer in the sky we call the Internet all got stitched together and put a map of the entire world in our pockets. Today, how often do you see people leaning over a paper map on the hood of their car working out their route with a gas station attendant? Almost never.

This hour, On Point: The story of the mapping revolution, what it has given us, what it has taken from us.

- Jane Clayson

This program aired on May 29, 2018.


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