The Road Makes All the Difference

“There is a subtle but fundamental difference between finding direction … and ambiently knowing direction.” This was Evgeny Morozov’s recent encapsulation of Tristan Gooley’s The Natural Navigator. According to Gooley, natural navigation, that is navigation by the signs nature yields, is a dying art, and its passing constitutes a genuine loss.

Even if you’ve not read The Natural Navigator, or Morozov’s review, your thoughts have probably already wandered toward the GPS devices we rely on to help us find direction. It’s a commonplace to note how GPS has changed our relationship to travel and place. In “GPS and the End of the Road,” Ari Schulman writes of the GPS user: “he checks first with the device to find out where he is, and only second with the place in front of him to find out what here is.” One may even be tempted to conclude that GPS has done to our awareness of place what cell phones did to our recall of phone numbers.

(Of course, this is not a brief against GPS, much less against maps and compasses and street signs. These have their place, of course. And there are a number of other qualifications which could be offered, but I’ll trust to your generosity as readers and assume that these are understood.)

From the perspective of natural navigation, however, GPS is just one of many technologies designed to help us find our way that simultaneously undermine the possibility that we might also come to know our way or, we might add, our place. Navigational devices, after all, enter into our phenomenological experience of place and do so in a way that is not without consequence.

When I plug an address into a GPS device, I expect one thing: an efficient and unambiguous set of directions to get me from where I am to where I want to go. My attention is distributed between the device and the features of the place. The journey is eclipsed, the places in between become merely space traversed. In this respect, GPS becomes a sign of the age in its struggle to consider anything but the accomplishment of ends with little regard for the means by which the ends are accomplished. We seem to forget, in other words, that there are goods attending the particular path by which a goal is pursued that are independent of the accomplishment of that goal.

It’s a frame of mind demanded, or to put it in less tech-derministic terms, encouraged by myths of technological progress. If I am to enthusiastically embrace every new technology, I must first come to believe that means or media matter little so long as the end is accomplished. A letter is a call is an email is a text message. Consider this late nineteenth century French cartoon imagining the year 2000 (via Explore):

From our vantage point, of course, this seems silly … but only in execution, not intent. Our more sophisticated dream replaces the odd contraption with the Google chip. Both err in believing that education is reducible to the transfer of data. The means are inconsequential and interchangeable, the end is all that matters, and it is a vastly diminished end at that.

Natural navigation and GPS may both get us where we want to go, but how they accomplish this end makes all the difference. With the former, we come to know the place as place and are drawn into more intimate relationship with it. We become more attentive to the particulars of our environment. We might even find that a certain affection insinuates itself into our experience of the place. Affective aspects of our being are awakened in response. When a new technology promises to deliver greater efficiency by eliminating some heretofore essential element of human involvement, I would bet that it also effects an analogous alienation. In such cases, then, we have been carelessly trading away rich and rewarding aspects of human experience.

Sometimes it is the road itself that makes all the difference.

20 thoughts on “The Road Makes All the Difference

  1. Michael,

    I recall hearing a story about a woman and her family visiting __________ [Death Valley??] (I cannot recall) and couldn’t find her way out due to her GPS. The GPS took her around and around and around in circles… I think her child died because they had run out of water (or I could be mixing up stories). I believe I heard the news piece on NPR — as the story was mainly focused on how unreliable GPS is. Quite frankly, call me old school, but I am more apt to remember how to get to an unknown location if use the old fashioned method (Maps and Mapquest).

    I work in Boston and GPS is nortorious for not understanding locations within the city limits. For example: South Boston (a.k.a. “Southie”) doesn’t always compute on GPS. Evidently, sometimes it’s just “Boston” you cannot use ‘south’ when entering the address for if you do, it confuses the GPS. :-/

    In any event, I enjoyed your article.


    1. Thanks, Susan. There are quite a few GPS horror stories. I think these are, by and large, rather extreme cases. Your second example probably points to a more common set of difficulties. I know I had some similar trouble in DC. Incidentally, I do think it is a testament to the pace of our society that Mapquest can count as “old school”! : )

  2. Nice post. One of the big problems that we have today is that people want instant information and they don’t want to construct a base of knowledge that allows them to utilize that information. As a technical instructor this can be very frustrating. My younger students want to dive right into parts of the class that require prior information to understand.

    It would be interesting to see what is taught about reading maps in the schools today? Do they still teach the basics?

    1. I asked a friend who is a city transportation planner if the knowledge that people so frequently use GPS for navigation leads to significant changes in how cities, roads, transportation, etc. are designed, and it seems that it is not. They use GPS user data in making their planning decisions in some pretty cool ways, but they still design cities and transportation systems assuming people are looking at their surroundings and not a device. So at least there’s that.

    2. I think your point gets at the indifference towards processes and means and forms that I was trying to get at. We are anxious to reach the end without necessarily understanding the importance of the process. As for the teaching in schools, I can’t say for certain. I would assume in Geography classes some basic map skills are still taught.

  3. Hi Michael,

    As always, your posts always give one a reason to reflect on how they grew up, how they learned things in the ‘old-school’ way, and how we have come to rely on so much of today’s technology. This illustrates a point that I’ve been finding is more and more prevalent and one that is very irritating to me. It can be quantified in the statement: The more technical advancement we achieve, the stupider (on the whole) we become.

    I am sure I’m not the only one that has noticed this phenomenon. Next time you’re out driving somewhere, make note of driving behaviors and habits of individuals in vehicles that come with all the techno-nannies that make driving ‘safer’. You’ll probably notice less defensive, less safe driving habits. We rely on technology to make life a bit easier, and in exchange, forget the value of common sense and situation awareness.

    When I go somewhere, I’m a natural navigator. I don’t use GPS, and don’t even trust map-quest (driven by GPS in conjunction with maps). If I need to get somewhere, I tend to take my directions from a human if need be. Spoken directions, written down, confirmed with map-quest. Also, understanding orientation, where does the sun rise, where will it be at noon and what relation to north is that?

    Ultimately, as you said, the road makes all the difference. People use the term: “It’s not about the destination, but the journey” far too colloquially these days, and really, it’s making a negative impact on how things occur in the human realm. We need to take that more literally. Of course, it could be said that if one uses GPS, it could be to effect an understanding of getting from point A to point B and the individual still might enjoy and become acquainted with the journey. GPS wasn’t intended to replace our experience, only to assist it. On the flip side, regardless of navigation, how many people really get to know the ‘route’ (not just in the sense of ‘this street connects to that street, connects to this other street and I turn there to get to that street and follow it to end point’ – but literally become familiar with landmarks and such on the path, to learn and ‘know’ intimately the route) to a destination? I’d wager most people couldn’t, even if they utilize ‘natural navigation’ tell you what is between landmarks or turn points. Not without sufficient time to navigate the route such that they learn it habitually.

    Anyway, great post as always, I love the insights into tech and human behavior, as I’ve been noticing (from a rather jaded perhaps, and even cynical view point) many disturbing things brought on by technology meant to assist in easing the fast pace of our lives, that seem to only complicate matters.

    All the best.


    1. Like Janet below, I wouldn’t quite say that it makes us stupid, but certain technologies certainly do displace certain skills or (appear to) render the need to carry certain forms of knowledge obsolete. As you say, GPS wasn’t necessarily designed to replace our experience, but the use to which we (ordinarily) put GPS does appear to fracture our experience. In many case, this may not necessarily be problematic. Sometimes I just need to get to where I need to go. But while we do that though we are also engendering certain habits of thought which might be problematic in the long wrong.

      Thanks for reading and your comments. I think you’re one of the longest standing readers of this blog and I do appreciate it!

  4. Susan, I, too, thought of Boston when I read this post, and the futility of trying to navigate via GPS there. I had to cast off the device and read the city, which is fortunately one which has largely grown organically, so I could reasonably figure out where, say, the business street might be in relation to where I was by using knowledge I have of what cities tend to do. I have always lived in Western cities, though, with wide, straight, gridded streets, where natural navigation makes less sense.

    Mike, I’m not so sure this is necessarily an ends-eclipsing-the-means issue. It often is, but in some cases I’m thinking this may be more about our own judgment in determining ends in the first place. If we go into something narrowly focused on our intended ends, and we gain something valuable by getting diverted, we may have to question the soundness of our initial goals. But accounting for gems of experience we may stumble upon if diverted from our intended goal is a difficult way to live contemporary life. If I know what I want to do (get to point B), and I have stellar tools with which to do it, why would I choose something that might make it harder? I am positive that you’re right that I could be missing out on valuable experiences on the more direct trip, but I’m thinking there’s got to be a more structural way to build in the juicy extras. Though I’m not sure how, since the whole point is that they’re goals I didn’t know I had. Hm.

    1. I wouldn’t disagree. I would add, though, that perhaps we are not really making a choice. If we’re unaware of the differences forms and means make, if we are not in the habit of taking these into account, then perhaps we are not quite making an act of judgment.

      1. You’re right. When thinking about your initial post, I was hung up on the analogy of navigation to education, and how the goals are so different (at least in theory — the movement toward an entirely instrumental view of education is terrifying), but in a comment above, you wrote that what’s at risk are “habits of thought,” and seeing it that way, I couldn’t agree more. :)

        1. I will admit that the initial post could’ve been clearer. I began w/GPS only to make it an analogy of sorts for a large pattern of thought. I probably needed to make that move a little more clearly.

  5. Jamie, I don’t know that technology makes us stupider, but the skills we learn with it seem to replace other skills, that’s for sure. I don’t know if that makes the GPS a problem, but it does change the way we relate to the environment. I liked thinking about that.

    I don’t use a GPS. 1. I don’t want an electronic voice always talking to me; and 2. I’m a back-roads kind of person rather than a straight and direct any-means-to-an-end person. I’m also a visual person so landmarks are more helpful to me than street signs. But I grew up in the country. My husband grew up in the city. He’d probably like a GPS, but he has me instead.

    Shannon, I really liked the way you expressed “…judgment in determining ends in the first place.” I expect you’re right in assessing contemporary life as demanding focused attention. I think that’s true too. But I wonder if it’s possible to re-evaluate/re-invent contemporary life by demanding it give us more space to wonder and less need to focus on end results.

    1. Janet,

      Really appreciated your comments, they’re well put and wise. Especially like that last line you leave us with, “more space to wonder.” You’ve nicely encapsulated what I’m aiming for.

          1. It’s never too late…they have a really fine graduate program. I was in Santa Fe, too, and had a most remarkable tutor, John Cornell, with a degree in the History of Science. History of Science!! I had no idea that even existed. Actually, I had several remarkable tutors.

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