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The Curious Ways We Find (And Lose) Our Way

Directions are shown on a GPS unit mounted in a car travelling along Kaiserdamm at dusk in Berlin.
Directions are shown on a GPS unit mounted in a car travelling along Kaiserdamm at dusk in Berlin.

Thanks to smartphone technology, a sense of direction is just a click away.

But what happens to the brain when we outsource our navigational skills? Do apps gained mean literacy lost?

Maura O’Connor, author of Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, says personal GPS devices “are the apotheosis of a dazzling era in human travel, an era of hypermobility.”

At the same time, these devices could mean a less enriching experience of finding our way — or losing it.

From Wayfinding:

Cheap and accurate GPS devices arrived in phones en masse just a decade ago, and already the era of paper maps and the challenge of orienting ourselves in space feels ancient. GPS seems indispensable, a psychic salve for getting lost or wasting time. Many of us embrace the device for even the shortest jaunts to ensure the fastest, most efficient route. In The Boston Globe, a journalist recounted a recent family road trip without GPS. Their adventures included using a telephone pole’s shadow to tell west from east and identifying Polaris; it was a holiday exploring “the old ways.” For those of us who remember the time before GPS, this lurch into a new normal feels abrupt, and the implications niggle at us. Weren’t the old days… yesterday?

One of our listeners is hanging on to those “old ways.”

“I never use GPS and have gotten lost temporarily a number of times,” Lori in Tallahassee told us. “Never a panicky kind of lost because I have a simple compass affixed to my dashboard. If I note I’m heading east and get disoriented direction-wise, then I know I can find a way back west and get back on track. I’ve also come upon some awesome scenery and met some wonderful ‘locals’ by getting lost!”

We talk with O’Connor about navigation, the human brain and the value of getting lost.

Show produced by Haili Blassingame. Text by Kathryn Fink.

GUESTS

M.R. O’Connor, Author, “Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World”; @TheOChronicle

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

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