Mobile technology is changing how we interact with the world on many fronts. One aspect that has become of particular interest recently is how it affects our sense of place and geography. Not too long ago, it would be commonplace to need a paper map to navigate from point A to point B. If we were traveling, we would need to perhaps periodically ask for directions. And if you’re traveling in another city – and more so in another country – you had to think mindfully about the new space you’re in. Questions might include: Where am I now? Where do I want do go? Where is there danger and are there places I need to avoid? We took thought, focus and time to understand what a place looks like and to comprehend the lay of the land. In this essential human way, we sought to understand where we were, where things were in relation to each other, and envisioned ourselves navigating this unfamiliar space.
How each person thinks about a new place is informed by their personal history and interests. Some mental frameworks of London could include: which tube stops are on the train line that gets them home, what are the key junction points or squares (Trafalger, Leicester, etc.), the best places for high end fashion, or the neighborhoods that they’ve heard are cool.
With the now ubiquitous smartphone and the advent of global internet access (which enables GPS capabilities), how we interact with space and place is changing. We no longer take the time to create and internalize a mental picture of a place. We simply drop in the address and get turn-by-turn directions. We follow the blue dot.
As opposed to making mental maps, we’re starting to navigate new spaces more passively. We rely on Siri to tell us where to go. We don’t think about where things are in relation to each other, but simply have Google Maps take us through the fastest route. As opposed to thinking about how we fit into the larger environment, we instead think about how the environment fits in relation to us.
On balance, this of course has some strong positive benefits. The soothing voice of Siri takes the anxiety and stress out of navigating to a new location. We also feel significantly more confident and safe in our ability to find our way. That in turn makes us feel more assured and adventuresome. Why not go down that beautiful looking street in that city you’ve just landed in? You’ll be able to find your way back.
However this quality of ‘passivity’ – having the lay of the land dictated to you versus paying close attention and making a mental framework of your surroundings – is the part I find most interesting. As opposed to having the path be spontaneous, flexible, and improvised, we don’t figure out where to go with agency. We let it be dictated to us.
And there can be significant consequences for that. Observationally, it seems like that lack of awareness of our surroundings makes us less involved and engaged with our environment. We’re becoming less aware.
John Huth, a physicist at Harvard and author of the navigation themed book, “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way,” points out that the process of figuring out where you are makes people more tuned into the physical world. “[With GPS] you’re losing this chance to have a greater awareness of your environment. It’s almost like depriving yourself of music, or a conversation with another person. There’s a richness that you’re missing out on.”
With that in mind, here’s to turning off your smartphone, enjoying getting lost, and only having your wits and a spontaneous spirit to keep you company.