Boycott GPS

Last month, I went on a road trip with a group of friends, up the east coast of Queensland. We hired two campervans, and we spent just over a week cruising our way from Brisbane to Cairns. Two of my friends insisted on bringing their GPS devices with from home. Personally, I don't use a GPS; but these friends of mine use them all the time, and they assured me that having them on the trip would make our lives much easier, and hence that the trip would be much more enjoyable.

I had my doubts. Australia — for those of you that don't know — is a simple country with simple roads. The coast of Queensland is no exception. There's one highway, and it's called Route 1, and it goes up the coast in a straight line, from Brisbane to Cairns, for about 1,600 km's. If you see a pub, it means you've driven through a town. If you see two pubs, a petrol station, a real estate agent and a post office (not necessarily all in different buildings), that's a big town. If you see houses as well, you must be in a capital city. It's pretty hard to get lost. Why would we need a GPS?

To cut a long story short, the GPSes were a major annoyance throughout the trip, and they were of no real help for the vast majority our our travelling. Several times, they instructed us to take routes that were a blatant deviation from the main route that prominent road signs had marked, and that were clearly not the quickest route anyhow. They discouraged going off the beaten track and exploring local areas, because they have no "shut up I'm going walkabout now" mode. And, what got to me more than anything, my travel buddies were clearly unable to navigate along even the simplest stretch of road without them, and it made me sad to see my friends crippled by these devices that they've come to so depend upon.

In the developed world, with its developed mapping providers and its developed satellite coverage, GPS is becoming ever more popular amongst automobile drivers. This is happening to the extent that I often wonder if the whole world is now running on autopilot. "In two hundred metres, take the second exit at the roundabout, then take the third left."

Call me a luddite and a dinosaur if you must, all ye GPS faithful… but I refuse to use a GPS. I really can't stand the things. They're annoying to listen to. I can usually find a route just fine without them. And using them makes you navigationally illiterate. Join me in boycotting GPS!

GPS is eroding navigational skills

This is my main gripe with GPS devices. People who use them seem to become utterly dependent on them, sticking with them like crack junkies stick to the walls of talcum powder factories. If a GPS addict is at any time forced to drive without his/her beloved electronic companion, he/she is utterly lost. Using a GPS all the time makes you forget how to navigate. It means that you don't explore or immerse yourself in the landscape around you. It's like walking through a maze blindfolded.

I must point out, though, that GPS devices don't have to make us this stupid. However, this is the way the current generation of devices are designed. Current GPSes encourage stimulus-driven rather than spatially-driven navigation. Unless you spend quite a lot of time changing the default settings, 99% of consumer-car GPSes will only show you the immediate stretch of road in front of you in their map display, and the audio will only instruct you as to the next immediate action you are to take.

Worse still, the action-based instructions that GPSes currently provide are completely devoid of the contextual richness that we'd utilise, were we humans still giving verbal directions to each other. If you were driving to my house, I'd tell you: "turn right when you see the McDonald's, then turn left just before the church, at the bottom of the hill". The GPS, on the other hand, would only tell you: "in 300 metres, turn right, then take the second left". And, because you've completely tuned in to the hypnotic words of the GPS, and tuned out to the world around you, it's unlikely you'd even notice that there's a Maccas, or a church, or a hill, near my house.

Even the US military is having trouble with its troops suffering from reduced navigational ability, as a direct result of their dependence on field GPS devices. Similarly, far North American Inuits are rapidly losing the traditional arctic navigation skills that they've been passing down through the generations for centuries, due to the recent introduction of GPS aids amongst hunters and travellers in their tribes. So, if soldiers who are highly trained in pathfinding, and polar hunters who have pathfinding in their blood — if these people's sense of direction is eroding, what hope is there for us mere mortals?

I got started thinking about this, when I read an article about this possibility: Could GPS create a world without signs? I found this to be a chilling prediction to reflect upon, particularly for a GPS-phobe like myself. The eradication of traditional street signs would really be the last straw. It would mean that the GPS-averse minority would ultimately be forced to convert — presumably by law, since if we assume that governments allowed most street signs to discontinue, we can also assume that they'd make GPS devices compulsory for safety reasons (not to mention privacy concerns, anyone?).

Explorer at heart

I must admit, I'm a much more keen navigator and explorer than your average Joe. I've always adored maps — when I was a kid, I used to spend hours poring over the street directory, or engrossing myself in an atlas that was (at the time) taller than me. Nowadays, I can easily burn off an entire evening panning and zooming around Google Earth.

I love to work out routes myself. I also love to explore the way as I go. Being a keen urban cyclist, this is an essential skill — cycling is also one of the best methods for learning your way around any local area. It also helped me immensely in my world trip several years ago, particularly when hiking in remote mountain regions, but also in every new city I arrived at. I'm more comfortable if I know the compass bearings in any given place I find myself, and I attempt to derive compass bearings using the position of the sun whenever I can.

So, OK, I'm a bit weird, got a bit of a map and navigation fetish. I also admit, I took the Getting Lost orientation test, and scored perfectly in almost every area (except face recognition, which is not my strong point).

I'm one of those people who thinks it would be pretty cool to have lived hundreds of years ago, when intrepid sailors ventured (with only the crudest of navigational aids) to far-flung oceans, whose edges were marked on maps as being guarded by fierce dragons; and when fearless buccaneers ventured across uncharted continents, hoping that the natives would point them on to the next village, rather than skewer them alive and then char-grill their livers for afternoon tea. No wonder, then, that I find it fun being without GPS, whether I'm driving around suburban Sydney, or ascending a mountain in Bolivia.

Then again, I'm also one of those crazy luddites that think the world would be better without mobile phones. But that's a rant for another time.

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