Is GPS making us stupid?

GPS on a phone

I moved to Huntsville, Alabama about a year ago. Here I am one year into living in a new city and I still am not all that good at getting around without google maps. I admit, I have leaned on this technology way too much. Here are somethings I have learned about my mapping habits over the last year.

Estimated time to arrival: My favorite thing about these mapping apps is they let me know when I am going to arrive. At first it was handy because I didn’t really know where I was going and I like to keep a tight schedule. Where I failed myself is that I kept the app open and visible. Rather than learning the way to Costco or the Trader Joe’s, I could just follow the map right in front of me. Yes, I knew my ETA, but in the process I learned very little of the city’s road and grid system and now, one year later, I am still not quite sure if I take the 431 or the 231 to get to the Orion Amphitheater.

Street names: Looking at the map app as I drive keeps my eyes down, or straight ahead at the road, but no so much up at the street signs. Learning the street names and noticing where they connect is integral to learning the road system in a city. For people who have lived in the same place for years this is simple muscle memory. I lived in Los Angeles for 13 years. I could get anywhere in that city without google maps or Waze. Yet, here I am in a city immeasurably smaller than LA and I am not sure if Governors Drive connects to Drake or Airport Road. It’s on me to close the app and look up at street names. Sure, I might make seven wrong turns to get to Sam’s and by doing that I learn even more of the road system. 

Situational Awareness: By not having taken the time last year to learn the road system I am driving mostly oblivious to what I am passing and what is around me. It is hard to have situational awareness when I am not even sure where I am. Learning a new city involves time and commitment. I will make wrong turns, I will “waste” a bit of time getting somewhere 17 minutes away because I turned left instead of right, but above all of that – I familiarize myself with my new home and learn cool shortcuts and shops that are off the beaten path.

We live in a world where smartphones have made our lives remarkably easier. They remove the need to learn things because, for the most part, they are always there to provide an answer. BUT, and here’s the BIG BUT…what about when they aren’t available to guide us? When storms come, when the grid fails us, or the wifi signal doesn’t reach the nothingness that is down the 72 – what do you and I do then?

Leaning on the smartphone to always save the day is leaving our safety, security, and certainty in the hands of technology and that has proven itself in the past to be a very fallible plan.

I commit to turning off the GPS moving forward and letting my intuition guide me until my mind memorizes the Huntsville map and my muscle memory kicks in.

Where is somewhere in your life that you want to be more familiar with? Do you know how to figure out which cardinal point you are facing without relying on your car to tell you? What if you get lost on a hike? Do you know your way down and out of the forest to get back to your car? Are you ready to put the GPS down and focus yourself on the road, the signs, and what is happening around you?

The outcome you get from this time committed to learning your environment means when the chips are down and you gotta be ready to respond you aren’t staring at a phone or holding it up in the air, as if that is actually gonna get you a better signal by changing the height of your phone by 36-inches.

If you have kids, friends, and other family that are consistently putting their friends house or a familiar destination into their GPS take the time with them to help them figure it out without the screen time. 

Reading maps and understanding topography and environmental awareness is a skill we shouldn’t just hand over to the phone because when we need it the most is generally when it is most apt to fail us.

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