Impact of wired world – 14

I was just checking one of my favorite blogs and read this new-ish post. Dr. Dennis is discussing whether wired tools change our brains and develops this theme:

One fundamental problem with this metaphor is that these technologies are not doing anything to us; our brain is not “on” technology. Rather, these technologies are tools. When we use tools, we change the world and ourselves. So, in this sense, of course our brain is changed by technology. But our brain is also changed when we read a book or bake a pie. We should not accord something like a mobile device a privileged place beyond other tools.  Rather, we should try to remember that the effects of technology are a two-way street: we choose to use tools in a certain way, which in turn influences us.

This got me thinking about one of my favorite tools, the GPS (not exactly her main theme, social media, but close enough). Now I’ve been using GPS almost since it became a consumer product and long before most people had ever even heard of it. Today GPS is almost ubiquitous, at least for navigation in driving, but using it demonstrates several ways we adapt to technology.

For the sake of discussion, I’ll classify all the various products into three categories, at least in terms of an aid to driving:

  1. “dashboard” units, either built-in (like many new cars offer) or an add-on
  2. mobile devices with geolocation capability and mapping, e.g.. iPhone
  3. laptop-based “hardcore” mapping and navigation, e.g. Delorme

I hesitate to mention the second category, even though it may be the most common, because it fails a critical feature, in my view. These devices require a real-time and continuous online connection to get mapping data which means these devices are utterly useless in many places where navigation aids are needed. Both the first and third categories have the mapping data stored in the device and thus can operate “offline.” Access to GPS itself may be [nearly] universal but without map data getting latitude and longitude is merely a curiosity.

Now most of the first category of devices contain limited map data, primarily due to: a) the device has too limited storage for comprehensive data, and often inadequate processing power to handle complex map data, i.e. the data has been dumbed-down for the device, and, b) mapping data, as Apple is learning after its divorce from Google maps, is hard to come by, especially on a comprehensive basis, as well as being rather expensive.

So, for anyone driving around in the middle of nowhere, plus having to do complex routes to find specific places in nowhere, only the third category of device is sufficient. Now, relatively few people need this capability as they are probably just going somewhere on Interstates and a few local roads, or trying to get to a nearby location. But for anyone seriously trying to navigate, regardless of the reason, only the third category of device will suffice. And since I fall in this category of user, naturally my bias is in favor of a robust navigational aid and I’m a heavy user of this type of tool.

Now how does any of this tie into Dr. Dennis’ point? Simply put, for all categories of GPS uses I believe it can and frequently has “dumbed-down” our ability to navigate, or, in Dr. Dennis’ theme, we don’t “use” our previously learned navigation skills, due to the convenience of the new gadget, and therefore we “lose” them. BUT, this is not inevitable, it is more a question of how we choose to use the tool. We can use a tool in place of our own ability and thus “lose” it or we can use the tool to amplify our ability. Just getting to a friend’s house for a party at an unfamiliar location probably doesn’t fit this model, but a real trip of some complexity encourages using the tool to augment our built-in ability.

I decided to get my first (and very early generation) GPS after attempting to drive, alone, to Big Bend National Park, a moderately complex journey of about 1200 miles. I started out with nothing more than a couple of AAA maps and a general idea about the route I would take. Confusing road signs had me headed east to Iowa instead of south as my first mistake, but it was driving around Dallas-FtWorth in the rain with insane traffic that taxed my ability to read maps in real-time, signs, and avoid collisions and convinced me any future trips of this magnitude required assistance, given it now existed.

Shortly after that trip and now having bought both a laptop (plus inverter) and Delorme’s first software, RoadWarrior, that I made my first mistake with GPS replacing my intuitive navigation sense. I went on a camping trip to Chadron State Park with a day tour to the Toadstool Geological Park, plus sight-seeing in the Oglala National Grasslands. I did a good job of getting out in the true middle of nowhere on roads way too small for AAA to show and realized as the car was filling with dust (death to electronics) and severe bouncing that if any of these gadgets failed I would literally be up the proverbial creek and seriously lost. So I let commonsense rule and decided to immediately head back to “somewhere” (at least on paper maps) ASAP. That part of the world has a lot of private land owned by people who are hugely hostile to outsiders so after seeing lots of ambiguous No Trespassing (on the road, or just the land?) signs and threats of deadly force I stopped for a minute to collect my thoughts. Having considerable experience backpacking (plus getting lost a few times) I knew that the key to avoid getting lost is to always stay “found” (sounds silly, but it is exactly what is needed). So I substituted good old pencil and paper to record some turns I’d made in nowhere so I could backtrack if needed (standard maze running methodology). Eventually I found my way out, now wiser in the ways of using GPS properly, i.e. use it but don’t blindly trust it.

Now the trouble with many simple GPS units is what you do when they’re: a) wrong, or, b) roads IRL don’t match maps, either due to out-of-date map data or plain old road construction. People who just assume GPS works and it can be trusted may end up driving off in the wavy waste. Also you may find yourself on some small street/road in a place you don’t want to be. In short, if you let GPS rule your driving, trouble awaits, sooner or later.

Since I do use my navigation tools to do complex routes finding places in the middle of nowhere (with many roads either closed or bridges out or construction that then re-requires real-time re-routing (originally not a feature of most of the software)). So over time I used my tool to amplify my navigation skills, not replace them. Wherever you’re going you need to have ideas (and the “big picture” visualization of your planned route) how to deal with errors and: a) avoid getting lost or somewhere you don’t want to be, or, b) still find your planned destination when the mindless device sends you the wrong way. Even all the practice I’ve had still often doesn’t work when I’m in a very different part of the country from my experience here (for instance, in hills in California or Washington many roads on maps are private and gated; in some southern states routes offer you the chance of a Deliverance experience.) So not only do you have to use your wits, you have to adapt to local circumstances.

So most people have good success with using GPS more or less blindly, but I’ve found using it to be an adventure. Many places I’ve gotten to one could probably never find without being a “local” and of course that’s the whole fun part of exploring. But years of studying maps in more detail than I ever could with paper maps (except for some bicycling on backroads in the Bay Area, where AAA maps were sufficiently detailed and the pace on a bicycle slow enough to do real-time navigation, but also the costs of mistakes are higher) have led not only to my adventures I could only accomplish with GPS but also a better intuitive understanding of maps as a representation of the real world and how to be clever, in real time, of coping with challenges. So in my case the tool has increased my navigation skills, not reduced it.

And one final note on this. Driving, as long as one has sufficient fuel, is much more forgiving to mistakes. Once I decided to find a dashpoint in Wyoming mountains. There was no road or even trail, but it was only about 1.5 miles from the nearest road head (itself not on any map). In this case I was using my handheld GPSr to navigate and I fell into the mindless mistake of just following the needle on the GPSr and ignoring my surroundings, except to figure out how to cross immediate obstacles. Fine and dandy until … (no the batteries didn’t run out and I did carry spares) … the GPSr itself decided to fail (rather stupid of me since that particular unit had had some intermittent failures before). Now I really am lost in a potentially life-threatening environment. No reference points, no compass or maps, no breadcrumbs (tree blazes, yarn on branches, any of the backcountry tricks). After a brief moment of panic, again experience took over and I sat down, calmed myself, trying to visualize what clues I had absorbed about the route I’d taken. After reversing my course, as best I could remember, but having gone further than I thought it should be to find the car, in frustration, I did the well-known cure to balky electronics, bash it! Fortunately the GPSr responded and came back to life. I found I was nearly a quarter mile off my track (which would have meant never finding my car) and the GPRs continued to work until just briefly before finding the car, which I could have never found in deep woods if I hadn’t gotten very close to it.

So don’t lose it! Continue to use your innate abilities and let devices help you, but not replace your judgment and intuition.

I suppose this applies to social media, but I’m not going to go there now.

About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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