Smartphones may make us dumb, but they also help us find our way

By : 
Reflections from my Notebook


I was in the Twin Cities early Saturday afternoon just as the recent winter storm began pounding southern Minnesota. I had some doubt whether it was wise to make the journey home that day, but since my route was on major highways, I trusted the state snow plow operators more than the weather forecasters who often seem to hype storms in order to get people to tune in to their weather reports.

This time, the weather forecasters were right and we got dumped on, even more than originally predicted. The state plows were also out in full force as usual so I still made it home safely, although it took about twice as long than driving to the Twin Cities before the storm.

I also learned a little bit about what it would be like to entirely rely on GPS navigation, since I still mostly travel using old-school methods.

The only part of my route that I wasn’t sure about was on the roads skirting along the southern part of the metro area that got me to familiar Highway 52. I had driven that route a few times before, but it wasn’t a route I often take, so I didn’t have the road names and turnoffs committed to memory.

As I got started, the snow started coming down heavy, cutting visibility to near zero. GPS navigation had helped at points during my route in the past, but I mostly drove based on landmarks that I couldn’t see in the blinding snow. Another problem was that my timing was off regarding when turns were due because I was traveling at about half the speed or even slower than normal.

Most of the time I had no idea where I was or when I should make a turn onto another road.

My granddaughter riding with me pulled up navigation on my phone and helped me get through the ordeal, which became tense because I didn’t want to waste any time that would allow conditions to further deteriorate.

Although maddening at the time, the interesting part of the process in hindsight is when I asked her a question about where we were or how far to the next turn. All she could do was show me a pulsating dot on her phone that signified our car and a colored line that showed the route. The map didn’t have landmarks noted and often the names of roads weren’t visible zoomed in and sometimes couldn’t be deciphered when zoomed out.

She could always tell me the turn right when we got to it, but I wanted some advance warning since I was dealing with multiple lanes, poor visibility and a slippery surface that wasn’t conducive to making sudden decisions.

My granddaughter is 12 years old, so she doesn’t drive, but when she does I imagine she will rely solely on GPS navigation, as most young people do, to get her through unfamiliar locations. She’ll have a robotic voice alert her when to turn, meaning she won’t need to interact with the physical environment right before her.

I wonder if that increasing reliance on technology is changing the way we find our way — our smartphones turning us into dumb drivers?

It has happened in other areas of our lives.

I used to know dozens of phone numbers. Now that I have an extensive contact list on my phone, I can’t even remember the numbers of people close to me.

Cashiers in businesses often have no idea of the concept of change except what amount appears on their electronic screen in front of them. Sometime I would give them extra money to reduce the coins or bills I was due back, but it confuses so many cashiers I stopped that practice.

Even more concerning is the theory that so many young people have become socially inept because they would rather communicate by texting on their phones than speaking to people directly.

Research shows GPS does affect our process of wayfinding, which is sensing the barriers in our environment to navigate spatially to a remote destination, according to Jennifer M. Bernstein, a lecturer of spatial sciences at the University of Southern California. She recently wrote about this concept in The Conversation US, an independent, non-profit global network that provides a public arena for academic experts.

For example, she wrote, Inuit people, faced with snowy, topographically uniform landscapes, are attentive to subtle cues such as snowdrift shape and wind direction. Until the advent of GPS devices, those cultures had no cultural conception of the idea of being lost.

Bernstein cited research that has established mobile navigational devices have been linked to lower spatial cognition, poorer wayfinding skills and reduced environmental awareness.

For example, people are less likely to remember a route when they use guided navigation. Without their device, she wrote, regular GPS users take longer to negotiate a route, travel more slowly and make larger navigational errors.

While the old-style of navigation kept us more engaged in the physical environment, guided navigation disengages us from the real world.

The same could be said for electronic cash registers, texting capabilities and even social media. It’s enough to wonder if we should throw out our smartphones.

Still, Bernstein notes that it is too simple to merely demonize technology, something called ethnonostalgia, where we find ourselves sentimental for an imagined simpler place and time. Technological advances have historically liberated us from toil and suffering.

Technology can also aid old-fashioned methods of making our way through the world. Even before the storm, my GPS helped me fill in some gaps or steer me back on the right path when I navigated my Twin Cities destination mostly by landmarks and visual memory.

Technology has enhanced our daily experiences throughout history.  Bernstein noted that just as drivers use cars and hunters use guns, many of us are constantly on our smartphones.

Sociologist Claudio Aporta and ecologist Eric Higgs put it this way: “Technology has become the setting in which much of our daily lives take place.”

So, even though smartphones may be dumbing down our navigation skills, I’m not ready to give mine up. After all, it did just get me through a landscape that only an Intuit could love.