When Something Goes Wrong, We Stop Dead: Digital Directions

Are standalone navigation devices and smart phone map apps crippling our own navigation skills?

A few weeks ago, I was driving across the state of Florida from Naples to the Miami airport when, about halfway through the Everglades, I began to notice the occasional car parked on the side of the highway. These were not abandoned. There were people in these cars. As we entered the Miami area and began merging on, off, and through the maze of highways, the frequency of these parked cars increased. Now, rather than just in an indiscriminate area of the shoulder, many of these cars were parked in the triangular area of shoulder just before the exit ramp.

Had I not noticed this before? Is it that I rarely come to Miami? Was something happening? I asked my girlfriend if she saw the cars too. She did. So, it was real.

Perhaps these people were lost. What an amazing tool we have in our pockets – instant access to detailed maps of the world. But here is the problem: we are so accustomed to having that access that there is no reason for anyone to know where they are going before they leave.

First we had MapQuest and Google Maps on our desktop computers. We could get directions and print them out. Sweet! At this point we still studied the map fairly well, because if we hit traffic, or took a wrong turn, those paper directions would not adjust and “recalculate.” We needed to use our memory, sense of direction, and make quick decisions.

Then we got standalone GPS navigation devices. We mounted these on our dashboards, plugged in our destination and listened to the annoying mechanical lady dictate our every move. If we encountered any issues, we would pull over to adjust the technology and move on. This was the beginning of the end.

When someone navigates for you, there is not much need for studying maps and making decisions. Several years ago, I was going to see a movie at a new theater. My friend and I had never been, so we needed to look up directions. We followed those beautifully confident digital directions and ended up at a 20 foot pile of dirt in central Connecticut. We were baffled. Had they not built the theater yet? We were stuck.

Finally, we got navigation built into our smart phones. We gained an even better service than what was offered by the original navigation tools. We carry this device around with us always. We would briefly review the map and directions an hour before we left the house…15 minutes before…5 minutes before. If anything goes wrong we can just look up directions on our phones. Those trying to be safe and abide by the laws pull over before pulling out their phones to figure out what to do.

Now, we don’t even bother to open the map before we leave. We don’t even know the address of the place we are going, because we search on our phones by name. We don’t even think about using a map until we are in unfamiliarity territory. What hubris!

We rely on this technology; and when something goes wrong, we stop dead. Now we plague the nations roads with idling cars in inconvenient and dangerous places, heads buried like ostriches.


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