GPS gives directions, but what does it take away?

Excerpt: Wayfinding

Navigation GPS phone wayfinding
GPS makes sure we get where we need to go. But what do we lose in the process?Deposit Photos

The following is an excerpt from "Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, a new book by M.R. O'Connor.

In places that have long-­established traditions of navigation by environmental cues, GPS can represent yet another onslaught against cultural identity. I watched the filmmaker and Hōkūleʻa crew member Nāʻālehu Anthony hold up his smartphone in front of an audience and tell them, “The compass and the sextant and the GPS. This device can co-­opt 3,000 years of knowledge by pressing a button and looking for the pathway.” When the anthropologist Claudio Aporta began studying Inuit wayfinding in the Canadian Arctic, he wondered whether GPS was just another technology that communities in the Arctic would adapt to and thrive with, like snowmobiles or shotguns, or would it erode something intrinsic and crucial about Inuit culture itself? When he first went to Igloolik in the 1990s, some 40 hunters already owned GPS units. The device’s greatest benefits were during walrus hunts: hunters could save fuel returning to shore from their hunting sites by plotting a direct course even when the shore was out of sight. But those who had grown up on the land still didn’t use GPS much, and knowledgeable full-­time or part-­time hunters merely used it to supplement traditional wayfinding. It was younger hunters who tended to rely the most on GPS as a primary tool. The combination of a lack of wayfinding experience, the speed of snowmobiles, and the ease of GPS could quickly amplify the dangers of navigating in the Arctic. GPS changed the routes that people take, sometimes away from paths whose safety had been proven over generations; some hunters can tell just from observing tracks in the snow who was using GPS to find their way because they were straight as an arrow—a computer-plotted track. Jason Carpenter, teacher at Nunavut Arctic College, told me that “[i]t’s easy for anybody to jump on a skidoo and get out a hundred miles almost without thinking. So our ability to get ourselves in a bad situation is greater.”

Many of Igloolik’s residents who knew the most about traditional wayfinding were in their seventies or eighties, members of the last generation who had been born on the land; had been schooled in wind direction, snow, sun, stars, tides, currents, and landmarks; and had memorized hundreds of place-­names. After GPS arrived, hunters could minimally rely on the environmental cues, and it lightened the cognitive load of memory itself. “The GPS receiver’s answer to a spatial question (e.g., where to go) is provided by a mechanism that is physically detached from it (a network of satellites) and required no involvement of the traveler with the environment,” Aporta and his coauthor, Eric Higgs, wrote in their paper “Satellite Culture: Global Positioning Systems, Inuit Wayfinding, and the Need for a New Account of Technology.” “Although the act of physical travel will always involve some connection with the surroundings, this connection is... shallow.” In Igloolik, Alianakuluk, an elder, told Aporta about a rescue operation in which the searchers wanted to use GPS to follow a course. He knew, however, that it would lead them straight into a dangerous landscape and the floe edge. “I told him that I better lead the way and I will lead with Inuk knowledge, otherwise we would get to the rough pressure-­ridges field. So I led after that, using snowbanks created by the prevailing uangnaq wind... as my wayfinders,” said Alianakuluk. “We did reach our predetermined destination using my knowledge as an Inuk. Had we just followed the GPS we would have gone through rugged pressure ridges, then even possibly to the floe edge. This would have caused more problems than help anyone. That I know for a fact.”

We are all neophytes when it comes to GPS, computers, the World Wide Web, and jet travel. These are only barely newer to Western societies than they are to indigenous ones. “GPS is basically having an effect on how we relate to space and geography in general, due to the fact that spatial decisions we used to make on our own are now made with a device,” Aporta explained to me. He cited the work of the philosopher Albert Borgmann, a professor at the University of Montana. Since the 1980s, Borgmann’s work has focused on a theory he calls “the device paradigm” that seeks to explain the ramifications of technology at the personal, social, and political levels of modern existence.

Nearly every aspect of human life, says Borgmann, has been affected by the replacement of things with devices. Craftwork by automation, candles by lighting systems, fire by central heating. Devices can do many things, including releasing us from darkness, cold, and hardship, but they also separate people from the physical environment by subordinating nature. So while devices liberate people from toil, freeing our time and energy, they also separate the means from the end. We are disconnected from the environment and the skills required for daily survival. Consider a thermostat: it allows us to control the temperature of our homes with a finger, yet by using it we are no longer responsible for physically gathering the resources needed to heat our own homes—the thermostat conceals the means of heat. According to Borgmann’s argument, the divorce that devices create cumulatively erodes social and ecological meaning.

Wayfinding MR OConnor navigation excerpt
M.R. O'Connor's "Wayfinding" is on sale now.Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

GPS is the perfect Borgmannian device. Even though it had not been sold on the mass market yet, the philosopher might have been describing it when he wrote in 1984 that “the machinery makes no demands on our skill, strength, or attention, and it is less demanding the less it makes its presence felt.” Of course, navigational devices like maps, compasses, and sextants also fit Borgmann’s device paradigm, because they outsource to some degree the formidable experience, observation, and memory needed to undertake skilled navigation. But even these inventions required a level of environmental awareness and orientation, as well as an understanding of topography or celestial phenomena. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that navigational technology released us from needing to pay any attention at all. “The combination of newer navigational instruments (e.g., radar, automatic beacons, computational support) produces an increase in efficiency and a corresponding loss of skill,” write Aporta and Higgs.

None of us is exempt from the ramifications of the device paradigm. We all seem to find it extraordinarily difficult to step outside the onslaught, to create the distance and perspective between us and our devices that might allow us to question what cultural or cognitive price is being paid in return for convenience.

From WAYFINDING: THE SCIENCE AND MYSTERY OF HOW HUMANS NAVIGATE THE WORLD by M.R. O'Connor. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.