Sunday, July 3, 2016


I have my suspicions about the motives of my Tom-Tom, which, yes, does have a distinctive personality. I don’t have a smartphone, so if I need to find my way in unfamiliar territory, I rely on the Tom-Tom. For those of you who don’t remember, a Tom-Tom is a navigation device from before phones had a GPS, which happened relatively recently, but it never ceases to amaze me how much everyone seems to forget. For instance, a lot of people visit the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum every year. Evidently they have forgotten that the man was virtually illiterate. Although, it just occurred to me that possibly the library houses all picture books.

My children have invested considerable energy into pressuring me to trade in my GoPhone for a smartphone, and I have resisted admirably. The only thing that causes me waver the slightest bit is that I admire the navigation system in my husband’s smartphone, which is clearly more sophisticated than my Tom-Tom. I have noticed my Tom-Tom laughing diabolically from time to time. Like when the device tried to convince me to drive from Richmond, CA to Oakland, CA by way of Arizona, promising that the route would avoid toll roads. I think a malicious spirit occasionally hijacks the Tom-Tom and crouches inside, gleefully giving wrong directions. I need to find an authentic shaman to chase that spirit out. There are definitely malicious navigation system spirits among us. I have read news articles about people who drove off cliffs, into lakes, and deep into remote wilderness areas beyond the reach of civilization while mindlessly following the directions of a diabolical GPS. This phenomenon is a bizarre disease of our time. People trust the cybersphere implicitly, shut their brains off, and disconnect from real life. If I forget my mother’s maiden name, I’ll just ask my phone.

In May, Ron and I took a road trip through PA, NJ, NY, CT, and MA. We used the GPS in his phone, and it won my heart by warning us one day not to drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge, which was actually, astonishingly, closed on our day of travel because of a terrible crash. An extremely rare occurrence. But the problem with relying on a phone for directions is that it sometimes loses service and the screen goes dark. Then what? Laugh if you must, but I still like AAA maps; you know, those paper diagrams of geographic areas. I know, so last century. News flash:  I was born in the last century. As a member of AAA, I can get all the maps I want for free. Getting excited about anything that’s free is so last century too. Maps don’t depend on satellites in space to tell me where I am, where I’m going, and how to reach my desired destination; which may sound theological, even mystical, but actually it’s pretty much just practical. Maps don’t tell me who I am, just where I am. A map would never promise to take me to the Salem Waterfront Hotel and then drive me in circles for 45 minutes until I had to run into the Salem Witch Museum to use the bathroom, like Ron’s brilliant phone GPS did.

Speaking of the last century, I’m going to step back there for a moment of historical reflection. Edward Tolman, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley, coined the term “cognitive map” in 1948. He used the term to describe the way rats in mazes demonstrated their ability to envision the totality of the maze (how the parts of the maze fit together to make the whole maze). Fast forward to this century, where research shows that when people depend on a GPS, it causes deterioration in the ability of their brain to build a cognitive map (which would account for how a person might jump in a lake because the GPS said so). A cognitive map is a mental representation of a physical location. Cognitive maps help us find our way and help us to recall features of our physical environment. We retain cognitive maps of spaces of all sizes, from our bedroom to Planet Earth. A GPS removes a person from relationship with the environment, destroying the ability of the brain to comprehend spatial concepts or connect locations in the physical environment and impairing the ability to construct cognitive maps. In other words, a GPS prevents us from having any clue where we are. We just follow the moving arrow on a computer screen. It’s a virtual journey. We could do it wearing virtual reality goggles while sitting in the living room. How do we know we even went anywhere? Or that we ever arrived? Or that we exist? I GPS therefore I am.

In an experiment conducted in Japan in 2008, scientists measured how long it took people to go from Point A to Point B using three different methods:  GPS, paper map, and being shown (by walking the path) the way by a guide before trying to find it again without the guide. Participants walked six different routes using these three types of directions. GPS-users took the longest to complete each journey (they traveled slower), made more stops along the way to figure out where they were and where they were going, made larger directional errors, and somehow managed to travel a greater distance during each of the routes than the other two kinds of participants. Afterward, the GPS-users could not sketch a map of their route with the level of accuracy that the map-users and direct-experience participants could. Researchers conclude that the GPSs cause people to disengage from the environment. I think this means that finding one’s way becomes more like a video game than real life.

I don’t imagine that folks who use a GPS don’t notice their surroundings or enjoy the scenery. Ron and I took great delight in the gorgeous springtime landscapes we traveled on our vacation while using his phone GPS to find places. But I do think that GPS-users lose an important dimension of their overall spatial sense because locations are no longer in context. GPS-users reduce their ability to form a full-bodied cognitive map. There is even research evidence that indicates that, over time, using a GPS diminishes the amount of gray matter in the brain (Maguire and Woollett, 2006). I wonder how much of my gray matter my Tom-Tom has sucked out of my head.

When we were on our Northeast road trip in May, Ron navigated our route with his phone GPS. When I was at the wheel, he gave me excellent directions and we didn’t get lost. Super super good. But whenever he was driving, I took out my trusty AAA maps and followed along on the route. I loved watching the road signs correspond to the locations on my maps. So the younger generation can use their GPS until Dubya reads War and Peace, and I suppose they will always arrive perfectly at their destination, but as for me, I’m building gray matter, thank you very much. 

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