What GPS Has Taken Away

Paper maps help us know a place better.
December 2018
Paper map.
(Shutterstock)
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

It used to be that when I arrived in a new city, I would immediately buy a street map at the airport or at a gas station. Then I would make my way around, unfolding it on the passenger seat of my rented car, referencing the list of streets in tiny type with coordinates beside them and marking it up. You remember physical, printed maps, right? Those rectangular pamphlets that unfold to anywhere from magazine to table size?

Anyway, back when I used them, I would soon know the geography of the city in broad outlines -- where its downtown was, its relationship to a river or ocean, its major boulevards and so forth. It was empowering. The lines on the map became the lines in my mind.

I still intend to do that when I travel, but I don’t. Instead, like most of us, I whip out my GPS-equipped smartphone, open a maps app, type or speak an address and do what the AI voice tells me. It’s a passive relationship. It could lead me down a dark alley -- and occasionally does -- and I would follow. I may be the one telling Siri where to take me, but she’s the one in charge.

After a few days of this, I have only a vague sense of a city’s geography. After all, I’ve only been looking at a map on a screen the size of a deck of cards.

GPS is certainly a wonder. My phone is communicating with at least three satellites out of a network of 24, set up and managed still by the U.S. Department of Defense. Among other things, it’s an example of how the post-World War II investment in defense research and infrastructure, which produced the satellite system and the internet itself, has changed our lives and economy.

But we’re losing something. On my first trip to Venice a decade ago, before GPS systems were so ubiquitous, I would let myself wander through its tiny streets and enjoy having no idea where I was. On a more recent trip, I couldn’t resist pulling out my phone to locate myself.

The late Marshall McLuhan, the wise and often inscrutable commentator on media, culture and technology, said that every extension is also an amputation, meaning, for example, that your fire-making skills decline once you are given a box of matches. So it goes. But like knowing how to read and write cursive penmanship, which is also fast declining as a skill, I believe that knowing a place -- its streets, forests, harbors, mountains and drugstores, and where they are in relation to each other -- is something worth holding on to, even if it takes putting my phone down for a while.

Soon we may get rid of the middleman -- meaning me and you -- and simply have a GPS-equipped system direct our autonomous vehicles and, who knows, maybe eventually our bikes, wheelchairs and scooters, to our destinations. Will this accelerate the trend of our places becoming just blurry blobs in our minds, lacking definition? Probably.

Still, maybe there will be countertrends. McLuhan also said that when one technology replaces another “the sloughed-off environment becomes a work of art in the new invisible environment,” meaning, I believe, that the old practical skill or tool, when replaced, becomes something to be savored and cared for.

Maybe this tendency will help preserve those paper maps. Phones will be put away and people will compete on their map-reading prowess. Carrying around a map will be the equivalent of using a fountain pen. It will be “artisanal,” much like making your own pickles. I’m all for it. Who’s with me?

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist | alex@rpa.org