In June, Al Byrd's three-bedroom home, built by his father on the western outskirts of Atlanta, was mistakenly torn down by a demolition company. “I said, ‘Don't you have an address?’ ” a distraught Byrd later recounted. “He said, ‘Yes, my GPS coordinates led me right to this address here.’ ” The incident joined a long list of satellite-guided blunders, including one last year in which a driver in Bedford Hills, New York, obeyed instructions from his GPS to turn right onto a set of train tracks, where he got stuck and had to abandon his car to a collision with a commuter train. Incredibly, the same thing happened to someone else at exactly the same intersection nine months later. In Europe, narrow village roads and country lanes have turned into deadly traps for truckers blindly following GPS instructions, and an insurance company survey found that 300,000 British drivers have either crashed or nearly crashed because of the systems.
To many, the beauty of the devices is precisely that we no longer have any need to painstakingly assemble those cognitive maps. But Cornell University human-computer interaction researcher Gilly Leshed argues that knowledge of an area means more than just finding your way around. Navigation underlies the transformation of an abstract “space” to a “place” that has meaning and value to an individual. For the GPS users Leshed and her colleagues observed in an ethnographic study, the virtual world on the screens of their devices seemed to blur and sometimes take over from the real world that whizzed by outside. “Instead of experiencing physical locations, you end up with a more abstract representation of the world,” she says.
On a snowmobile trip of over 500 kilometres across the Arctic, this blurring of the real and the virtual became obvious to Carleton University anthropologist Claudio Aporta. Returning from Repulse Bay to Igloolik, a village west of Baffin Island where he was conducting fieldwork, he and an Inuit hunter became engulfed in fog. The hunter had been leading the way along traditional routes, guided by the winds, water currents, animal behaviour, and features such as the uqalurait, snowdrifts shaped by prevailing winds from the west by northwest. Like London taxi drivers, Inuit hunters spend years acquiring the knowledge needed to find their way in their environment, part of a culture in which “the idea of being lost or unable to find one's way is without basis in experience, language, or understanding — that is, until recently,” as Aporta and Eric Higgs wrote in a 2005 paper on “satellite culture” and the rise of GPS use in Igloolik.
Heavy fog is the one condition that stymies even the most expert Inuit navigators. The traditional response is to wait until the fog lifts, but, knowing that Aporta had mapped the outbound journey on his GPS, his guide asked him to lead the way on his snowmobile. “It was an incredible experience, because I could see absolutely nothing,” he recalls. “I didn't know if there was a cliff ahead; I was just following the GPS track for five kilometres, blind, really.” This was the extreme version of the city driver blankly turning left and right at the command of his GPS, and it required a leap of faith. “Believe me,” he says, chuckling, “I was sweating like crazy.”
The demonstrable benefits of GPS have, however, removed much of the incentive for the younger generation in Igloolik to undertake the arduous process of learning traditional navigation techniques. Elders worry about this loss of knowledge, for reasons that go beyond the cultural—a straight line across an empty icefield plotted by GPS doesn't warn about the thin ice traditional trails would have skirted. Dead batteries and frozen screens, both common occurrences in the harsh Arctic conditions, would also be disastrous for anyone guided solely by technology.
I think there's a connection between overreliance on the GPS and my unease with the Drupal User's Group yesterday, but it's still a bit tenuous … but there is a connection …
And one story somewhat related to the article: when I visited my friends in Boston, I had no sense of the city (other than being a twisty maze of one way streets, all alike) because we always took the T, which was for the most part, below ground. We'd descend into an underground station, enter a train, wait a bit, exit the train and ascend into a new part of the city—a linear stretch of Bostonian islands as it were.
I found it rather disconcerting, but I never did get lost.