These handheld GPS devices are making you worse at navigating, according to studies.

The dusk of the 20th century gave rise to the era of the technological revolution, and the electronic age was born. Devices such as the personal computer, cellphone, television, radio, and the internet, paved the way for a new culture of life. These devices have not only made our lives easier to commute, but also changed the way we live our lives altogether. Without these devices our lives seem like a void, or nevertheless, meaningless. The global positioning system (GPS) is one of the modern technological tools that’s making us worse at navigating. Can you really find your way around?

Related media: How GPS Works

If There’s GPS, You’d Find Your Way

You might have had that experience of arriving at an unfamiliar city and wondering how to get to a specific location; whether it’s meeting a friend at a party, checking in at a hotel, or just navigating your way around to get to the nearest cafeteria for a snack. That experience can be one hectic task, but thanks to a few clicks on your smartphone, and the aid of a navigational app with customized route preferences to avoid traffic and tolls — and even inclines in cities like San Francisco — you can easily get to your destination with ease.

As you drive to your destination via a voice prompt, and the occasional illicit glance at the constantly updating map. But, after all this, you arrived safely, and there’s the vague awareness that you don’t even know how you got there. You can’t even remember the landmarks along the way, and, without your handheld device, certainly couldn’t get back to your original point. That raises the larger question: Are the navigational capacities of our smartphones making us worse navigators?

Yes indeed. Considering the ubiquitous nature of our mobile devices, as well as their ability to aid us with virtually everything that we want, perhaps we should embrace them as a technological prosthetic.

You’re Not A Wayfinder, You’re Lost

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People from all walks of life have a unique practice of wayfinding — sensing their environment for barriers to travel, then navigating spatially to a remote destination. Anthropologists and geographers, (and even some psychologists and neurologists) study how people navigate from place to place. The landmark paper in 1975, psychologists Alexander Siegel and Sheldon White argued that people navigate their way around with their knowledge of landmarks against a larger landscape. Recent navigational routes are discovered via the linking of familiar landmarks with new ones.

Just as the classic wayfinder, “you know where you’re going by knowing three things: where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re from.” For instance, Inuit people, faced with snowy, topographically uniform landscapes, are attentive to subtle cues like snowdrift shape and wind direction. Until the advent of GPS devices, those cultures had no cultural conception of the idea of being lost. According to advanced research, our mobile navigational devices — such as the GPS integrated into our smartphones — has caused limited proficiency in our wayfinding.

People are more likely to forget a route after using the guidance of a navigational app. Without their devices, regular GPS users spend quite a long time navigating — such as negotiate a route, travel at a slow pace, and making a lot of navigational errors. Navigation in the physical world require the use of geographic maps, compass, astrolabe, which offers an engagement with the physical world; whereas assisted navigation doesn’t offer any contact with the physical world.

I’ll See You When You Get There

However, this is not to say mobile navigation is all bad. These devices may be a form of “ethnonostalgia,” where we find ourselves sentimental for an imagined simpler place and time. The technological revolution, have liberated people from toil and suffering. In addition, most of our present day experiences are mediated through technology — drivers drive cars, hunters shoot guns, and most people are addicted to their smartphones.

A 1997 article argues that spatial technologies aren’t necessarily needed to replace geographic thinking, but rather serve as a prosthetic, supplementing our spatial awareness. The increased access to information gives people a new way to quickly and easily explore new landscapes — which can then lead to physical exploration of said landscapes. We can then focus less on the rote memorization of place names in favor of a deeper understanding of the topography.

As sociologist Claudio Aporta and ecologist Eric Higgs put it, “Technology has become the setting in which much of our daily lives take place.”

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sun, Feb 03, 2019.



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