More than a billion people around the world have smartphones, almost all of which come with some kind of navigation app such as Google or Apple Maps or Waze. This raises the age-old question we encounter with any technology: What skills are we losing? But also, crucially: What capabilities are we gaining?
Talking with people who are good at finding their way around or adept at using paper maps, I often hear a lot of frustration with digital maps. North/south orientation gets messed up, and you can see only a small section at a time. And unlike with paper maps, one loses a lot of detail after zooming out.
I can see all that and sympathize that it may be quite frustrating for the already skilled to be confined to a small phone screen. (Although map apps aren’t really meant to be replacements for paper maps, which appeal to our eyes, but are actually designed to be heard: “Turn left in 200 feet. Your destination will be on the right.”)
But consider what digital navigation aids have meant for someone like me. Despite being a frequent traveler, I’m so terrible at finding my way that I still use Google Maps almost every day in the small town where I have lived for many years. What looks like an inferior product to some has been a significant expansion of my own capabilities. I’d even call it life-changing.
Part of the problem is that reading paper maps requires a specific skill set. There is nothing natural about them. In many developed nations, including the U.S., one expects street names and house numbers to be meaningful referents, and instructions such as “go north for three blocks and then west” make sense to those familiar with these conventions. In Istanbul, in contrast, where I grew up, none of those hold true. For one thing, the locals rarely use street names. Why bother when a government or a military coup might change them—again. House and apartment numbers often aren’t sequential either because after buildings 1, 2 and 3 were built, someone squeezed in another house between 1 and 2, and now that’s 4. But then 5 will maybe get built after 3, and 6 will be between 2 and 3. Good luck with 1, 4, 2, 6, 5, and so on, sometimes into the hundreds, in jumbled order. Besides, the city is full of winding, ancient alleys that intersect with newer avenues at many angles. Instructions as simple as “go north” would require a helicopter or a bulldozer.
In such places, you navigate by making your way to a large, well-known landmark and asking whomever is around how to get to your destination—which involves getting to the next big landmark and asking again. In American suburbs, however, there is often nobody outside to ask—and even when there is, “turn right at the next ornate mosque” is a different level of specificity than “turn right at the next strip mall.”
All of this means that between my arrival in more developed nations and the arrival of Google Maps, I got lost all the time, searching in vain for someone to ask. Even when I traveled to cities that were old like Istanbul, I still felt uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily speak the language well enough or know the major landmarks so my skills didn’t transfer.
I tried many techniques, and maybe I would have gotten eventually better—who knows? But along came Google Maps, like a fairy grandmother whispering directions in my ear.
Since then, I travel with a lot more confidence, and my world has opened up. Maybe it is true that I am especially directionally challenged, but I cannot be the only one. And because I go to more places more confidently, I believe my native navigation skills have somewhat improved, too.
Which brings me back to my original question: while we often lose some skills after outsourcing the work to technology, this new setup may also allow us to expand our capabilities. Consider the calculator: I don’t doubt that our arithmetic skills might have regressed a bit as the little machines became ubiquitous, but calculations that were once tedious and error-prone are now much more straightforward—and one can certainly do more complex equations more confidently. Maybe when technology closes a door, we should also look for the doors it opens.