Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Wayfinding atrophy? Blame GPS


HALLIE EPHRON: I admit it, I am directionally challenged. Right now I’m in NYC and it’s particularly obvious. I keep coming up out of the subway and heading the wrong way. East for West. North for South.

Fortunately for me, New Yorkers are incredibly patient and generous and do not roll their eyes when you stop them and ask, “Can you tell me, please, am I facing North?” as you stare down Sixth Avenue at the needle-nosed One World Trade Center.

I haven't always been, as they say, lost in familiar laces. I used to be able to come up out of the subway (the lines had letters: BMT, IRT, IND) and know instinctively which direction I was facing. Which meant for 90% of the time (barring lower Manhattan and the Village where the original cow paths defy right angles), I could  find pretty much any address without a map.

Now, I come up into the light of day and, whichever way I go, it’s always wrong. Even when I KNOW I’ll be wrong and reverse my assumptions… I’m still wrong. Even after I pull up walking directions on my phone, I go the wrong way.

This is not my fault. I blame GPS. 

I was fine finding my way all those years when I HAD to rely on my judgment. HAD to read a real map without a moving YOU ARE HERE button on it. HAD to notice landmarks along the way so I’d be able rewind my route and find my way home.

Now with GPS, I believe that as a result of all this ‘help,’ my natural way-finding ability has atrophied.

It's all that time spent on automatic pilot, staring at that little screen and following its instructions to "turn around when possible." My only worry: when it tells me “in 100 feet, turn right,” how far ahead is 100 feet.

What has improved is my relationship with my husband. In our household, I’m the designated driver (he grew up in Brooklyn and didn’t learn to drive until it was…too late. He drives like a beached whale, and only does it when he has to.) Used to be, he’d be in the passenger seat, juggling a massive fold-out map and trying to direct, and I’d be yelling “Shouldn't I turn here?” or “What do you mean turn right? It’s one way.” This would be compounded by the fact that he gets left and right confused.

So how’s your internal compass these days? As reliable as your GPS?
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54 comments:

  1. If I were to be the designated driver, complete chaos would ensue since I am so directionally challenged [and was that way long before there was GPS to blame]. If we had to depend on my internal compass, we’d be forever lost . . . .

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  2. My dad taught me to consult a map beforehand and write directions in large print on 3x5 cards. Landmarks included if we knew them. I’ve never seen any reason to change this system. A glance at the cards while driving is possible if there is no navigator in the car. Love maps. Hate GPS.

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  3. I have to use GPS. I'm directionally challenged getting anywhere unless I've been there many times. Hell, I need GPS to get to the homes of relatives, though to be fair I don't go there often enough to really memorize the route.

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  4. I think there's something to that, Hallie. I continue to balance my checkbook without a calculator so I don't lose the ability to do basic arithmetic.

    I still have an excellent navigational sense, thank goodness. And there's nothing like a paper map to give you the overview (and as a backup if you lose phone signal, as I sometimes do driving in certain areas in New England).

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    1. Love paper maps and atlases too

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    2. I love them, too, and used to spend hours studying them when I was a kid, dreaming of places I'd go.

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    3. Gigi, we must be related. Since childhood I have loved maps and atlases, and I studied them, too, losing track of the time!

      I don't use GPS, and still rely on maps. For a number of years I worked in a job that took me all over the western part of CT, I can find my way around most of Fairfield County and New Haven County, and I'm fairly good at getting around parts of Litchfield County, too. And the job I just retired from required serious map reading skills. I think it's a gift that not everyone has. Don't ask me to change the toner on an office copier or printer! I will undoubtedly remove a non-removable part!

      DebRo

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    4. DebRo and Gigi, my entire family is enchanted with and adept with maps, from my father on down - and it extends to my paternal cousins, too!

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    5. Edith, I also balance my checkbook without a calculator. One of the managers at my bank marvels that I do it that way and says I should teach his other customers to do that.

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  5. Oh Hallie, love love the picture of Jerry with the map and you yelling. It sounds so very familiar. I do still love maps and we use them to get the big picture on bigger trips. And yes probably GPS (iphone now) has stunted me, but...it sure is easier getting places. Except for those times when my phone stops talking to me...But all in all, I think I have a good sense of direction, but don't you dare ask John...

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  6. I had to laugh at the comment about GPS improving a marriage. So true! In our family, my husband, who loves to drive and never looks at maps, is behind the wheel, and I was the keeper of the information. This led to lots of heated moments in the car! Now that disembodied GPS voice is in charge. I am a much happier passenger. If she gets it wrong, not my fault. And not my problem.:-) (I must add, once in downtown Boston,the GPS was no help at all getting back to the hotel.And we could SEE it. We just couldn't get there.)

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  7. Last month we headed to Miami University, "just" 45 minutes northwest of Cincinnati. We followed the posted detour off the state route...and then the detour signs disappeared! I put on GPS, which directed us around three sides of a square to rejoin the state route. Twenty minutes before the bride took her walk down the aisle, we hit a maze of road construction around the university. GPS directed us to the church, but we still had to find a parking meter on an adjacent street.

    We consulted the bride during the reception: the state route was open for the weekend, so we flew home in 45 minutes. GPS for detours in the cornfields, with a paper map backup for areas with no signal.

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    1. We took a major route across from Montreal to Vermont ... one that was newly opened and our gps showed us driving across corn fields

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  8. I have read that studies DO show people lose their instinctive ability to determine direction after using GPS for a length of time. I have always loved (paper) maps and don't have GPS so I'll not worry about that. My son the geography major does a lot of traveling for his work, and has a state-of-the art GPS gizmo. When I told him about that study he agreed, knowing how now he depends on technology and no longer going by landmarks to get where he wants to go.

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    1. And it’s scary how often there 2 (or more) streets with the same name in the same town

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  9. Anyone besides me remember the Thomas Guide? When I lived in LA and San Francisco, it was invaluable, could find the tiniest streets in the oddest locations. (I was a visiting nurse in South Central LA for a long time.)

    When I left California for upstate, I left my thomas Guide behind, and I haven't know where I was going every since.

    I'm good with directions as long as I can see the sun, and I can't see much of anything at night, so no matter. But right and left? Now that's a challenge. It's a rule when I'm navigating that I must point the way I want Julie to turn, saves a whole lot of heartache.

    And GPS is a god send, although the Google Map version took us to the top of a mountain in France, a tiny village that grew where the road ended. There wasn't a huge DNA pool, but it was still an interesting experience. Think Deliverance.

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    1. Ann, I live in So. Cal. and I ALWAYS have my Thomas Guide with me.

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    2. We don't have a Thomas guide in Dallas, but we did used to have giant MapsCo books, with the whole city divided neatly into a grid. I could find anything with one of those.

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    3. In my job, I HAD to have a Thomas Guide in the car at all times, one for Orange County, One for L. A. County, one for Imperial County. I bought a new one every year. But then we didn't have cell phones then (just as well!).

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  10. Truss you are not alone with that ‘can’t ‘ get there from here experience in Boston- the signage is dreadful- wen we first got here took me 3 passes to get off storrow drive at mass general

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  11. Directionally deficient here as well. I am really good at reading maps though, so I can usually figure out what the GPS is trying to get me to do. But leave me technology-less on a one-way, dead-end street and I'll still manage to get lost.

    Ah, the curse of technology. I just finished a book in which so much of the drama would have been avoidable if only the character had memorized a phone number, rather than relying on the mobile phone memory. (of course, then I would have missed out on an excellent thriller.)

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    1. If my life depended on memorizing a phone # I’d be dead

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  12. TrIss! Sorry - I’m lousy typing on my cell

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  13. Let’s just make sure you and I are never traveling alone together… We’d be in deep trouble. I am also consistently ridiculously hilariously always wrong. Always! And you know how much I love Jerry, and now I love him more. Turn right! I’ll say, and Jonathan responds really? I say yes yes right ! But of course I mean left. I have no idea why this happens. I’m left-handed… Is Jerry?

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    1. My leftie ex-husband was abysmal with navigation! Still is, I assume. my leftie son, not so much.

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    2. hmmm, is it a leftie thing? Left handed here too and before giving the hub a direction to turn left or right while he's driving, I often have to hold my hands up in front of me (looking at the back of them) and stretch out the first finger and thumb--the one that make an "L" is the Left hand! so I know which way to point. Of course, by then, we've missed the turn. . . complications ensue. Eh, no one has starved.

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  14. Believe it or not, I've never used GPS, even in a rental car. Total map and LA Thomas Guide girl, lucky enough to have a decent sense of direction. Even with his GPS, my husband still calls me from the San Fernando Valley, which makes about as much sense as Boston, even to machines...

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  15. I've never been able to instinctively know if I'm facing north/south/east/west (especially if I couldn't find the sun), never just "known" which direction I need to go, and never had a good grasp of "how far is 100 ft," so my directional abilities are much better with GPS. I know how to read a map and orient it, but it was always a hassle. "I'm facing this way, so it's a left on the map, but a right for me..."

    Nope, not a strength of mine.

    Mary/Liz

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  16. I am famously bad at knowing north from south, although if I'm on a coast I can very reliably tell you which way the water is. Once I know a bit about an area, whether from experience or from studying a map, I'm pretty good at getting from wherever I am to a major highway. But, yeah, I always build time for getting lost into my schedule. Even when the directions are simple, I can get turned around. While I am generally not that good at finding my way by the sun (it's noon in mid-winter, so is that south?) I do think there's something to be said for getting my eyes off the phone and connecting with the world around me, no matter where I happen to be.

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  17. So funny, Hallie. I'm the same way with subways, and have gone the wrong way all over the world now.

    But I love maps, and ever since Steve and I got together, I've been the navigator on long road trips (truth to tell, even here in town). The best maps were in Australia. We rented a car in Sydney and drove to the Blue Mountains, and to the Hunter Valley (challenging, driving on the wrong side!). Their maps have every single thing marked, including call boxes. I was so impressed.

    Since I've driven in 49 states, a lot of it on my own, I've learned some tricks about keeping oriented properly, but it can be difficult, especially on busy highways. Our girls, from the backseat, used to complain that we were lost. I would say, "We're not lost; we're exploring!"

    There's no doubt that GPS helps considerably, but it is not perfect. On one trip we used three different systems: the one in the car, a Garmin, and the GPS on my phone. None of them agreed, so I was constantly assessing which one to use. And where my daughter lives in Virginia is so new that her address is not in my car's GPS system, even after a recent update. I had to use my phone, which updates constantly, to get to her house the last time. But even that was not foolproof, because the area changes all the time, with former roads closing and new ones opening up. Such a headache. It's a miracle there aren't graveyards of lost drivers piled up all over.

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  18. So glad to hear I'm not the only one who is helpless when it comes to directions! At a nearby shopping mall set up in a circle, I inevitably turn the wrong way when exiting a store, and on the road--well, I don't know how I survived without GPS. My husband, on the other hand, is one of those annoying people who always knows where he is and how to get where he needs to go, but is terrible at giving directions (go to the old oak tree and turn south--WHAT??). And after 43 years of marriage, he still thinks I'm just lazy and could improve if I just paid attention to where I am driving. My mother used to read maps upside down, and my aunt sometimes had to follow buses to find her way home (or she might end up in another state--really!), so I come by my affliction naturally.

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  19. I have a good sense of direction, both North-South-East-West, but that left or right thing too. All I need to do is look at a Google Map of the route (satellite view) before I leave and I'm good to go. I think the GPS on the phone - my wife's phone, that is - is unreliable. Plus that voice drives me nuts. I ask her to mute it as soon as I hear it.

    Oh, and how far is 100 feet? Take 33 steps.

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    1. 33 steps? Great advice, Rick, thanks!

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    2. 33? I think those are Rick-Robinson strides, not my steps.

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    3. Rick, I agree with you about the voice. I was driving and my adult son was with me. We knew where we were going and had no need to use the GPS. Unfortunately there was an accident of the frwy and so my son pulled up the GPS on his phone. After several of mis-directions from the "voice", my frustration level was growing. My son turned off the GPS and said, "I could tell it was getting to you. You were arguing with the phone." My son navigated us around the problem by reading street signs. Much better.

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  20. I have always been a map girl. For years, in London, I never went anywhere without a copy of my trusty A to Z (that's pronounced A to Zed in Brit speak.) London, unlike New York, was NOT built on a grid, but is rather a collection of small villages that have been squished together into a big city. The streets are squiggly and run every which way and are impossible to navigate without a map unless you are a native. The bad thing about the A to Z was carrying it around. If you opted for the pocket-size version, the print was too small to read without a magnifying glass. There were lots of visits where I tore the relevant pages out of the bigger spiral bound versions.

    Then, enter smart phones and Google Maps! That has been truly revolutionary for me (although there have been a couple of times at night when I've lost phone signal and got completely turned around.) I've also had a couple of really bad experiences both in the US and the UK using sat nav, so now I just study a map beforehand, then stop and look at Google if I get stuck.

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  21. I've never been super good with directions. Always had to have them written down to follow exactly. GPS means I am printing out fewer directions, which I love. And it is great for going someplace spontaneously when out of town. I don't know how adventuresome I would have been when traveling for work if I couldn't just plug something into my phone's GPS and gone.

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  22. Hallie, great post! I'm so glad I stopped by today. My internal compass used to be great! I remembered landmarks and I remembered the directions very well. That was BEFORE I got my driver's license. After I got my driver's license, I was awful with directions because I kept on getting lost! Now my internal compass is better. Once I have a routine and I remember landmarks, I am fine.

    If it is a new place, it depends on the map. I love the maps in London. The book with different maps are so clear! The maps in the Rick Steves travel books are not clear, unfortunately. I never liked GPS. One time, we were trying to find directions to a place in Danville, CALIFORNIA and GPS gave us directions to Danville in VIRGINIA! LOL.

    Diana

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    1. And whenever I enter an address into GPS in Los Angeles, have learned the hard way to put in the zip code... because LA is so big there can be several of the same addresses.

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    2. Yes, Los Angeles is so big! I remember the long drives from the airport to visit my grandfather at Crescent Heights and Sunset. That was way before GPS existed.

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  23. I'm not trying to brag, but I am very good when it comes to directions and finding my way. Give me a couple of days in a city, and I have a handle on things. In fact, people often ask me for directions when I'm visiting other cities. Maybe I project an air of navigational authority? There are a couple of places that confound me, for example, there's a community east of Seattle that I find endlessly confusing. It's all tall pine trees and no landmarks, and the layout makes no sense to me. In that area, I need to rely on GPS.

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  24. I am loathe to admit that I'm directionally challenged. I am so in denial over it that I will gladly take charge of getting whoever I'm with from point A to point B. It's those darn North, South, East, and West points that are the buggers. I do have decent luck with my phone and Google Maps though. So, when we need to get somewhere at Bouchercon, I'll happily step up to give directions. Just make sure I have my phone with me.

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    1. This made me laugh, because I'm one of those people who WANT to help when someone else needs directions, but I need to stifle myself because too often I speak with authority uninformed by any knowledge or even solid intuition.

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    2. Hahaha! That's so me, too, Hallie.

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  25. Hallie and Hank.....another directionally challenged left handed person here. Currently, due to health issues, I'm not driving so my ever patient husband is both the designated driver and the navigator (along with his trusty phone). When he drops me off somewhere, if there happens to be multiple entrances/exits, he will look at me very seriously while saying "ok babe, here we are at the flowers/produce door side for you to go in. When you are done, make sure to go back to the flowers/produce door and go out that way, if you want to find me". It's a wonder he is willing to take me anywhere!

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  26. I have been resistant to GPS technology, and now, Hallie, you've given me a new excuse!

    I resist because I feel like I have so many young co-workers who blindly follow their GPS and have no idea what to do if an address doesn't show up there, or a road is closed, or any other unexpected outcome. Plus, I feel so utterly out of control when I know nothing beyond the next turn.

    That said, I have begun to relent a little. I like to look at the map prior to leaving and familiarize myself with the trip. And most of the time, just knowing the main turns will successfully get me 90% of the way to my destination. But I have finally admitted that the last 5 miles is often the most challenging, so I have taken to using GPS just for the portion where I leave the main highway and start looking for streets.

    I would not say I have an innate sense of North, South, East, or West, but I do have some innate sense of "my destination is in that general direction, so if I'm going the opposite that's probably bad." Does that make sense?

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  27. And one final driving/direction funny. Hub and I have friends who have lived in the same house in Newtown (CT) for more than 30 years. We have lived in New Haven for almost 30 (well, he more than 30, me coming up on it). So, can we reliably get to said friends' house? Why no! No matter what route we choose, state roads, parkway, interstate, always a confusion at some point! Left at the flag poll? Right? Who knows! The best was one visit when we arrived almost an hour late. We got so caught up in the reading of a fairly lengthy short story on NPR that we just kept on the Parkway until I noticed the sign for Welcome to New York State! Yeesh.

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  28. No sense of direction here! I won’t even shop in the mall because I can’t find my way out!

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  29. No phone with GPS, no car with GPS....maps and google to print and go by that...easier in my mind.

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