The other week, I drove through London with a musician friend who spent a lot of the trip telling me how much he loved his new dashboard-mounted GPS.
I could see his point. In my own folksinging days I averaged 50,000 miles a year across the US, and even with a box of maps in the back seat every day the moment invariably came when you discovered that the directions you'd been given were wrong, impenetrable, or missing. At that point one of two things would happen: either you would find the place after much trial and error and many wrong turns or you would get lost. Either way, you would arrive at the gig intemperate, irascible, and cranky, and they'd never hire you again. Me, that is. I'm sure you are sweet and kind and gentle and good and would never yell at someone you've just met for the first time that they miscounted and it's three traffic lights, not two.
By contrast, all my friend had to do was punch in the destination address, and after briefly communing with satellites the GPS directed us in a headmistressy English voice he called Agatha. Stuff like, "Turn left, 100 meters,"
Of course, I don't actually have any sense of how far 100 meters is. I lean more toward "Turn left opposite that gas station up there." But Agatha doesn't know from landmarks or the things humans see. I imagine that will change as the resolution, graphics, and network connections improve. I don't, for example, see why eventually everyone shouldn't be equipped with a complete set of world maps and a display that can be set to show a customizable level of detail (up to full, real-time video) with a recognition program that would enable Agatha to say exactly that while recalculating routes using up-to-the-minute information about traffic jams and other impedimenta. (Doubtless some public-spirited hacker will create a speed trap avoidance add-on.) Today's kids, in fact, are so used to reading multiple screens with multiple scrolls of information on them that the GPS will probably migrate to lower-windshield with user-selectable information overlays. And glasses, watches, or clothing so that if, like the Prisoner, someone abducted you from your London flat you would be able to identify Your Village's location.
Back in today's world, Agatha is also not terribly bright about traffic. We were driving from Kew to Crouch End, and she routed us through…through…Central London. A brief digression. Back in 1972, before the M25 was built, although long after the North Circular Road was cobbled together out of existing streets, I remember a British folk band telling me that that you had to allow an extra two hours any time you had to go through London. I accordingly regard driving inside the M25 with horror and an immediate desire to escape to a train. Yet Agatha was routing us down Marylebone Road.
You cannot tell me she knew it was Good Friday and that the streets would therefore be comparatively empty.
The received wisdom among people who know North London is that the most efficient way from K to C is to take the North Circular Road to Finchley (I think it was) and then do something complicated with London streets. On the way back, we tried a comparative test by turning off the GPS, getting directions to the NCR from the club organizer, and following the signs from there. (You would have to be as navigationally challenged as a blind woodpecker not to be able to find Kew from the NCR, and anyway I knew the way.) It was a quiet, peaceful way to drive and talk, without Agatha's constant interruptions. Or it would have been, except that my friend kept worrying whether we were on the right road, going the right way, speculating it was longer than the other way…
The problem is, of course, that GPS does not teach you geography, any more than the tube map does. Following the serial sequence of instructions never adds up to understanding how the pieces connect. Wherever you go, as the saying is, there you are.
To lament the loss of geographical understanding (to say nothing of the box of maps in the back seat) is, I suppose, not much different from lamenting that people other than Scrabble players can no longer do mental arithmetic because everyone has calculators or whining that no one has the mental capacity to recite The Odyssey any more. Technology changes, and we gladly hand over yet another task. Soon, knowing where Manhattan is in relation to Philadelphia or Finchley Road is in relation to Wembley will seem as quaint as knowing how to load an 8mm projector.
The world will look very different then: no one will ever be lost, since you will always be able to punch in a destination and recalculate. On the other hand, you'll never be really found, either, since pretty much all geography will be in offline storage. We folk travelers used to talk about how the whole country was our back yard. In the GPS world, your own back yard might as well be Minnesota.
Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her