On Christmas Eve I was driving to a hotel in Syracuse with Erica and Isabel; (I won’t say the name of the hotel, but it involved two trees). I had printed out the directions from the hotel website and off we went. Erica was in the front passenger seat, but she wasn’t much fun. She had just gotten back from two weeks in Israel and to her it felt like 3 a.m. As we neared our exit, I woke Erica and asked her to navigate from the paper I handed her. The writing was small, it was dark in the car, and the directions were unclear. Which is a long way of saying we missed our exit. I knew within a mile or two that something was wrong, but it took another 25 minutes to actually get to the hotel. It was frustrating for all of us. After a few minutes, Erica turned on her phone and accessed her GPS app and it talked us in.
Whenever I am about to drive somewhere new, I get on Googlemaps and take a look at where I am headed. I plan out my route and then, if it is complicated, I write it down on an old envelope or other handy scrap of junk mail and bring it in the car. I don’t have a GPS unit in the car or on my phone, so if I make a wrong turn I have to think my way through the mental map and figure out how to get back to where I need to be. Usually, I am able to do this. Though there certainly are times when I am irretrievably lost, and I then I pull over at a gas station and ask for directions.
I have a fairly well pronounced sense of where I am in the physical world much of the time. When my mind is quiet and allowed to float free, it sometimes creates an aerial view of the surrounding geography and places me in the view so that I have a concrete idea of where I am in the world. I like this about myself. I code it as a useful life skill that would have marked me as a survivor in the hunter-gatherer days.
Erica sees it as simply another manifestation of my Luddite tendencies and it drives her nuts that I won’t use a GPS as my first course of action. She may be entirely right, seeing how self-diagnosis is notoriously tricky. But I don’t think so. I really value knowing where I am. When I get to a new town where I will be spending a good amount of time, the first thing I like to do is walk the square mile around where I will be staying. I spend lots of time looking at maps and seeing how roads connect and where important landmarks are. The feeling I get when I do this is that the place exists independent of me. My goal is to see how to move through the place as best I can. My existence is superimposed on the geography, but the place certainly does not need me to be. By learning the place, I change it from an acquaintance to a friend.
I feel like our reliance on GPS has taken something from us. We are losing a geographic sense that serves to connect us to the places we are. Just think about the way we see the world when we look at it through the devices in our cars and phones: What is it at the center of the map? It is us. And we become the center of the universe. Landscapes exist only as we pass through them, and then they no longer matter.
All of these thoughts are just half-formed, (at best), but they feel important to me. I feel like I am on to something. When I taught sixth graders last year I demanded they could label a blank United States map with all 50 states and all 50 capitals in the correct locations. Again, Erica might say this is just another Luddite manifestation, since any kid could look this stuff up in milliseconds with the right device. But it feels important to me that people know about the place they live. At first, this means your block. But then it means your town, your state, your country, and then your world.
It drives me nuts when I hear people talk about Africa like it is one country. I pull out my hair when people lump all Muslims together as a monolithic faith. I cringe when someone from the East Coast says, (as I have heard someone say), “Idaho. Iowa. Whatever…” I don’t think that constant reliance on GPS leads to bigotry, but I do think the two can be connected. The GPS worldview always has you in the middle, in the place of central importance. In a global age, this sort of utter-provincialism might be dangerous. If we don’t understand the broader world and our place in it, we might be left constantly recalculating.