From Maps To Apps: Where Are We Headed? Throughout history, people have been using increasingly more sophisticated tools to find their way around. But our reliance on digital navigation might mean that we have less of a sense of where we really are.

From Maps To Apps: Where Are We Headed?

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GPS on dashboard of car
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Through the centuries, humankind has been using progressively cooler tools to find the best way from Point A to Point B. Navigation has morphed from crude compasses and globes to AAA TripTiks and interactive online maps.

But in the past couple of months there has been a spate of stories about people getting lost while using computerized maps, and wrecking vehicles while checking global positioning system teleprompters.


-- A woman told a sheriff's deputy that her GPS system guided her onto a snowmobile trail in Oxford County, Maine, where she -- and her Toyota Yaris -- were stuck in a ditch for several hours before being rescued, the Lewiston Sun Journal reports.

-- The 20-year-old daughter of the mayor of Shelton, Conn., rammed a Mercedes-Benz into a tree. The New Haven Register reported that she told police she was looking at a GPS unit when she lost control of her car.

-- A man driving from Texas to New York -- with a truckload of marijuana -- blamed his GPS-enabled device when he mistakenly wound up in Canada, the Toronto Star reported. He was arrested for drug smuggling.

These tales make you wonder about our use of online mapping services such as MapQuest and Google Maps, GPS-enabled gadgets, and map apps for smart phones. Could it be that as our reliance on digital navigation increases, our sense of where we really are declines?

Moving From Maps To Apps

Something is gained by digital innovation: "Our curiosity about where we are in the world may be improving -- and our ability to navigate via various electronic devices is also improving," says Victoria Lawson, a geography professor at the University of Washington.

And something is lost: "In another sense," Lawson says, "I get the impression that we are losing other abilities to navigate by the shape of the land, the orientation of mountains and rivers as we stare at a tiny screen."

The appetite for maps and road atlases in the United States is declining -- annual sales were down more than 23 percent in 2008 and nearly 12 percent again in 2009, according to the Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book 2010 by Stephen Mesquita.

In fact, Mesquita says, sales of road maps and atlases are down worldwide "because more people are using satnav and online mapping."

The Evolution Of Navigational Tools

Prehistory: Babylonians create a map of the flat world.

A.D. 100: Ptolemy produces an eight-volume geographical guide to a round planet.

1000s: Chinese explorers rely on rudimentary compasses.

1300s: Portolan charts gathered in Europe to help mariners sail the high seas.

1400s: Sailors use astrolabes to read the sun's altitude and determine latitude.

1492: Earliest extant terrestrial globe created in Germany.

1569: Gerardus Mercator uses cylindrical projection for true-bearing navcharts.

1731: Equipped with a telescope and mirror, sextant gives a more precise reading.

1735: The marine chronometer, a small timepiece, enables seafarers to plot longitude.

1900s: Terrestrial photogrammetry successfully used for surveying and mapping.

1904: "Automobile Road Map of New York City & Vicinity" is Rand McNally's first.

1911: AAA releases its first road map, which eventually evolves into the TripTik.

1930s: The "Lorenz" radio-signal system helps airplane pilots land safely.

1940s: During World War II, radar is used mostly by submariners to determine position.

1978: U.S. military puts first of 24 primary GPS satellites into orbit.

1990: First portable GPS units, made by Texas Instruments, delivered to U.S. Army.

1995: Oldsmobile offers GuideStar, an in-car GPS system, to consumers.

1996: GeoSystems Global launches its digital map service, MapQuest, on the Internet.

2000: Military makes GPS technology more readily available to civilian industries.

2004: Google buys digital mapping technology that will morph into Google Earth.

2005: MapQuest and Nextel partner to put maps on smart phones.

2009: Google unveils its own free navigation system for Android smart phones.

Sources: The Discovery Channel, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Rand McNally, American Automobile Association, Aviation Week, GeoSystems, Time, The Associated Press

Meanwhile, the sales of GPS devices and systems, such as software for smart phones, continue to grow. Techno-forecaster ABI Research predicts that shipments of worldwide global navigation systems, including GPS and other countries' satellite-based systems, will increase from more than 500 million in 2010 to 1.1 billion in 2014.

Everybody is doing it.

You Can't Get There From Here

The problem: By using up-to-speed GPS instead of age-old, foldout maps, we may not really be getting a sense of where we are or where we are going. If we are just responding to computer-generated -- and sometimes mellifluously voiced -- commands to "turn left" or "go straight," we are merely being told where to go and not figuring out routes and paths for ourselves.

In other words, we're becoming addicted to digital navigational systems and will be literally lost if they're ever not at our side. And the sense that we can navigate somewhere while doing other tasks can be dangerously distracting.

Brad Edmondson, former editor of American Demographics magazine and founder of the ePodunk website, says, "Getting directions from a computer is like having a conversation on Facebook: It usually works, but there is also a good chance that you'll miss something important. The computer doesn't give you the context."

And it is that context that gives us a sense of where we are. As well as where we want to be.

Among the digirati, there is a growing belief that one way to provide context to the GPS-reliant traveler may be social media. In other words, by using people as coordinates, we can get a better understanding of where we are.

Hiving, swarming, crowd sourcing, call it what you will -- using social media such as Twitter or Facebook to seek guidance in traveling is like asking a slew of different people for directions.

Proponents of digital navigation, however, are big on this idea. They suggest that social networking can be added to GPS to enhance our ability to negotiate geography. The maritime community is already experimenting with incorporating blogs, such as Clay Maitland's shipping industry diary, and forums, such as gCaptain and Latitudes & Attitudes Seafaring, into navigation on the high seas. Storms, rough seas, pirate ships, icebergs and other potential obstacles -- reported through blogs or message boards -- can be factored into a charted course.

A recent post on The Future of Navigation blog, sponsored by the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, predicts that "the next generation of mariners and navigators in training colleges today will be as familiar with blogs as with the bridge, and social media's role is set to grow and grow."

Similarly, truckers have used citizens band radios for years for overland directional information. And with the ubiquity of the Internet, drivers of all kinds of vehicles -- trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, Segways -- have the capability to use digital navigational innovations to guide them through a series of computer-provided twists and turns toward a destination. Gadgets such as the Dash Express -- which combines up-to-the minute telemetry with real-time Internet information and social networking capabilities -- continue to change the ways we negotiate this planet.

Using the next generation of navigational tools, advocates say, we will theoretically be able to not only ask directions to the nearest Chinese restaurant but also avoid a traffic jam, find a parking place and get a recommendation for the dim sum all in one fell swoop.

But when it really comes down to getting from Point A to Point B, are all of us really smarter than any one of us? Other people are not necessarily fixed points in this confusing world. They, like we, are constantly on the move -- from place to place. And opinion to opinion.

In other words, could it be that we find our way in this world not by being told how to get to our destination, but by gaining a clear sense of where we are, where we are going and where everything else is as well?

Remapping The Brain

In the end, the shift from hard-copy maps to computer apps may be changing the way we think. Brain researchers tell us that most humans travel from known geography to unknown geography in two different ways -- by using spatial strategy (such as reading maps) or by stimulus-response methods (such as trial end error or interacting with a GPS system). When it comes to a preferred tack, the population is split about in half.

Writer Alex Hutchinson explores this phenomenon in a recent issue of the Canadian magazine The Walrus. "Neuroscientists are starting to uncover a two-way street: our brains determine how we navigate, but our navigational efforts also shape our brains," Hutchinson writes. "The experts are picking up some worrying signs about the changes that will occur as we grow accustomed to the brain-free navigation of the GPS era."

Hutchinson explains that someone who prefers spatial navigation relies on the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays an important role in memory. And someone who moves around by stimulus-response methods tends to rely on a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, a center of motor control. He bases his work on research conducted by neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot of McGill University and others.

Extrapolating from studies of mice in mazes, Bohbot "fears that over reliance on GPS, which demands a hyper-pure form of stimulus-response behavior, will result in our using the spatial capabilities of the hippocampus less, and that it will in turn get smaller," Hutchinson writes. "Other studies have tied atrophy of the hippocampus to increased risk of dementia."

"We can only draw an inference," Bohbot tells Hutchinson. "But there's a logical conclusion that people could increase their risk of atrophy if they stop paying attention to where they are and where they go."

And for generations heading into old age, that is alarming. If forgetting how to read maps leads to forgetting everything else, then that is where we -- and our brains -- may eventually end up: in a cul-de-sac of forgetfulness.