GPS or Maps?

“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”
― Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

How do you prefer to get to a new place? I have always loved maps but have learned to love our GPS (Global Positioning System) too. Each method of navigation has its benefits and its problems, and some situations are better dealt with by one method than the other.  Discuss.

Maps give us context. As we follow a map or study it before a trip, we can see the lay of the land. How are things connected to each other? How far is it to the river? What is on the back side of that site? Maps also give you a chance to imagine and dream about what they represent. Why do we have “Milk Street” in Boston? And “Old Road to Nine Acre Corner” in Concord?

Traveling with a map gives us alternatives. When we realize that our preferred path is blocked by the spring festival we can look over other options and perhaps pick up useful, new information.

But maps are challenging to use (understatement) when you are driving in new territory with no co-pilot to navigate. Add aging eyes and you get headaches, confusion, roadside consultations, and gritted teeth accompanied by rude mutterings.

On the up side, flipping an unfolded map around and around in the front seat of a car is an effective way to get help from sympathetic locals.

GPS and maps have both advantages and challenges. Photo by Pproman

GPS and maps have both advantages and challenges.
Photo by Pproman

Global Positioning System receivers such as Garmin™, Magellan™, Tom Tom™, and smart phones have revolutionized the way we can get around. We can punch in or just speak the address we want or the name of the business we want to find. Then we are given directions, one step at a time, from where we are to where we want to be. If we miss a turn, “The Lady” (as my husband and I have come to call her) calmly says “re-calculating” and never lets on if she is the least bit annoyed or disappointed.  Within seconds she has a new plan and is helping us to follow that with the same neutral calm she always has. With a GPS on our dashboard, we will get there directly.

The down side of getting there with a GPS is that we have no idea what we have passed. Research shows that we will be less able to do it again without help than if we had used a map. We will be less likely to recognize landmarks and will have less of a feel for the neighborhoods we passed through.

An excellent article in the most recent Boston Sunday Globe contains many excellent insights, and confirms what I have suspected: GPS use reduces humans’ ability to find our way around. It guides us behind a veneer of ego-centric mapping; my car is always pointed forward/up while the world turns around me. I might as well be in a space capsule.

As a person who continually encourages people to “understand the world through travel” I encourage the use of maps for all that they can tell us about the lands we travel through. But if time is short, if I am alone and in a new city, please turn on my Garmin so I can just get there!

So what is your vote: GPS or maps?

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

22 August 2013

About Travel Unites

A travel agent since 1994, I want people to get together for greater understanding across boundaries.
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