It’s common for today’s travelers to drive blind. They have no idea where they are, and little sense of the route they are taking to get somewhere else. It’s a new thing. Even in the oldest of days, few people went blindly into the unknown of a cross country trek. When human beings began to populate the continent, they found their way by traveling from landmark to landmark as described to them by earlier trail blazers. It formed a mental map that may have been fuzzy about distances and conditions along the way, but it worked.
The advent of wagon roads improved things. You knew where the road started, where it ended, and how far it was between the two. Army and railroad surveyors developed more detailed maps with better information about terrain and other local conditions. They did what they could to show trails and wagon roads. For all of that, a person launching out for a long trip across the country still needed their own mental map constructed from available sources. If you’re interested, check out the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. It’s on line.
It was not until cars began to proliferate in the early 20th century that road maps were drawn and made available to the public at little or no cost. The earliest ones relied as much on descriptions of landmarks as they did drawings of routes. A traveler could carry a folded map or map book to plot a well defined course to almost anywhere, and use it to see where he or she was as they went a long the way. For the next hundred years, a road trip began by pouring over maps, plotting routes, and, maybe, getting instructions from AAA TripTiks – map booklets that sketched out the recommended route fifty miles at a time, annotated to note attractions, construction, and hazards.
Mobile phones, iPads, and GPS apps changed all of that. Between Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze, all one has to do is request directions from a current location to another place, and a disembodied voice will tell you how to get there, turn-by-turn, without any need to look at a map, recognize landmarks, or understand anything about the country through which you are driving. No mental map of where you are is needed or expected. Just obey the voice and you will get there. It’s very disorienting, at least for me. Driving blind is what I call it.
I thought about it while driving a rental car from the Columbus, Ohio airport to Kenyon College in Gambier. The disembodied voice got me there, but I had no idea about where I was, and no sense of what was around me. It was a bit of a surprise, and a relief, when the Welcome to Gambier sign hove into view. I didn’t like it. It’s why in my personal car there are maps of all kinds, in spite of onboard GPS, a cell phone and tablet. I want a sense of where I am along the way, what lies ahead, what’s behind, and what sort of country I’m passing through. Is that unusual? I hope not.
It would be a shame to think we are producing an entire population of GPS zombies who mindlessly navigate from point A to point B without ever knowing where they are, and how that might lead to knowing more about other people, other places, history, geography, and conditions that affect the lives of many. A nation of GPS zombies? Watching people amble down Main Street glued to their mobile phones, oblivious to their surroundings, it could happen.