Maps, mind and memory

london map

In concert with the UK publication of The Glass Cage, Penguin Books’ Think Smarter site is running an article by me on satellite navigation. Titled “Welcome to Nowheresville,” it’s adapted from a chapter in the book called “World and Screen.” Here’s a taste of the piece:

A GPS device, by allowing us to get from point A to point B with the least possible effort and nuisance, can make our lives easier. But what it steals from us, when we turn to it too often, is the joy and satisfaction of apprehending the world around us — and of making that world a part of us. In his book Being Alive, Tim Ingold, an anthropologist at the University of Aberdeen, draws a distinction between two very different modes of travel: wayfaring and transport. Wayfaring, he explains, is “our most fundamental way of being in the world.” Immersed in the landscape, attuned to its textures and features, the wayfarer enjoys “an experience of movement in which action and perception are intimately coupled.” Wayfaring becomes “an ongoing process of growth and development, or self-renewal.” Transport, on the other hand, is “essentially destination-oriented.” It’s not so much a process of discovery “along a way of life” as a mere “carrying across, from location to location, of people and goods in such a way as to leave their basic natures unaffected.” In transport, the traveller doesn’t actually move in any meaningful way. “Rather, he is moved, becoming a passenger in his own body.”

Wayfaring is messier and less efficient than transport, which is why it has become a target for automation. “If you have a mobile phone with Google Maps,” says Michael Jones, an executive in Google’s mapping division, “you can go anywhere on the planet and have confidence that we can give you directions to get to where you want to go safely and easily.” As a result, he declares, “No human ever has to feel lost again.” That certainly sounds appealing, as if some basic problem in our existence had been solved forever. And it fits the Silicon Valley obsession with using software to rid people’s lives of “friction.” But the more you think about it, the more you realise that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are.

Read on.

5 thoughts on “Maps, mind and memory

  1. Charles

    You remind me of Robert Venturi’s book “Learning from Las Vegas,” as I recall it, he compared navigation around auto-centric cities like Los Angeles to the air races in the Nevada desert. The planes raced around tall pylons as navigational waypoints, and LA driving had similar tall landmarks for automobiles to navigate by. The comparison is appropriate, since LA used to have dozens of little airports, and some of the tall buildings actually had towers with lights intended for airplane navigation. And that’s exactly the way I used to drive in LA. My landmark for driving to work was the old Mutual of Omaha tower at Wilshire and La Brea, it used to have a navigational beacon on top. I always thought of driving around LA as a point-to-point route, you don’t stop in the unfamiliar territory between endpoints. Even the language of driving expresses this, you drove up on the freeway, or down on the “surface” streets.

    Anyway, I was thinking about this because of a recent article in the LA Times about GPS navigation.

    There are lots of surface shortcuts to route around freeway congestion, but most people don’t know them. But now GPS apps like Waze optimize for shortest duration trip, not shortest distance. So when the freeways are clogged, everyone is rerouted through residential neighborhoods. And the local residents are having a fit about all the new traffic. That is hilarious.

  2. Hugh Fisher

    Enjoyable though wayfaring and navigation without GPS may be, it is sometimes the cause of “dire consequences” rather than the cure. Remember flight KAL 007 back in 1983? A GPS user-centred map would probably have saved 269 people from being killed when they strayed over the wrong border. For a more common case, imagine being a young woman in a strange city trying to find your hotel as night falls. Forming a cognitive model of your surroundings won’t exactly be a priority.

    I do agree with you that we over-automate things. I would much prefer a GPS navigator that instead of giving you directions, only spoke up when you seemed to be wandering off course.

  3. Nick Post author


    Yes, there are plenty of circumstances in which GPS can be an invaluable tool.

    KAL 007 is a complicated case. One could argue that it serves as a warning about an overreliance on automated navigation systems. (The pilots were certainly not wayfaring when the autopilot-controlled plane drifted off course.)


  4. lee

    to me, wayfaring/transport and navigation are two separate tasks. i use GPS to free myself from the task of navigation so that i can more fully enjoy being “immersed in the landscape, attuned to its textures and features”. and the times when i do go in to transport mode, it really doesn’t matter whether i’m using a GPS or not, im still in “transport” mode. wayfaring and transport are two different ways of traveling and are totally unrelated to how i navigate my travels.

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