A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Just Following Directions
Technology today allows us to outsource, perhaps to "upsource," a number of tasks to the cloud — tasks that used to require some degree of focused effort, record-keeping, or mindfulness from us. Facebook will remember and remind you about your friends’ birthdays; software online or on your computer or smartphone will keep track of the physical and electronic addresses and contact details of everyone you know; calendar applications will notify you, with as much or as little notice as you like, about scheduled events that are about to happen. Anyone who uses a GPS navigational device, whether on a smartphone or in a vehicle, can testify to its revolutionary effect on wayfinding: the means by which we orient ourselves and navigate from place to place.
A byproduct of wayfinding is what psychologists call a cognitive map, or more informally a mental map: a generalized picture of a portion of the exterior physical world that each of us holds to store information about landmarks and areas, and the distances, routes, and scales that connect them.
GPS devices have supplanted a huge number of conversations that used to take place in the aid of wayfinding: conversations that may have begun with a question like "How do I get back to the Interstate?" or "Is there a supermarket I can stop at near your house?" Many would agree that these conversations were not typically satisfactory and that the availability of GPS directions is a positive development for disambiguating navigational algorithms.
Languages vary widely in the ways they encode spatial relationships but a pattern common to all languages is that many "spatial grams" — that is, lexical and grammatical items that people use to talk about where something is or how you get to it — tend to evolve, over millennia, from names for parts of the body. This is why we have in English an adverb and preposition like ahead, and a preposition beside (the oldest meaning of side being the parts of the body that are on the left and the right).
This universal tendency in language reflects the fact that our experience of space is integrated with our cognition of how our bodies fit into it. And the way I conceive and mark that relationship may be different than the way that you do. When I give you directions, I’m giving you a narrative analog of the experience I have had on a journey that you are going to take. You, no doubt, will experience that journey differently in some particulars. This may be why some people’s eyes glaze over when you mention one of the points of the compass, while others can’t even get started on directions till you tell them which way North is. It may also explain why there is often a feature of spoken directions that seems mystifying in retrospect: a landmark or instruction that was presented as pivotal by the giver of directions may have been scarcely noticed by the executor, who wonders why some other critical feature was not mentioned.
GPS devices and applications remedy two liabilities of spoken or written directions. First, they replace the stored, idiosyncratic narrative aspect of a set of directions with a simpler set of standard instructions that you can execute in real time. Doubts about what you heard, or what it meant, are largely banished. GPS devices also supply an iconic display of the route as it unfolds, giving a picture that may well be worth a thousand words of verbal directions at nearly every turn.
What I notice, now that I have caved in to the utter convenience and ease of using GPS, is that my cognitive mapmaking is not what it used to be. In fact, it is so bad that sometimes I simply forgo the effort of consulting my cognitive maps, knowing that they aren’t going to supply the needed information. I just use my GPS device or the navigation app on my phone to go nearly everywhere. This has led me to think about what made old-style cognitive mapmaking more successful and why these maps fail to develop readily when I rely on GPS.
Without the use of GPS, wayfinding has at its disposal an eclectic set of tools that can be selected from depending on the circumstances: written or spoken directions, a printed map, an online service such as Mapquest or Google Maps that gives a graphic display of an entire route, or when all of these fail, stopping to ask directions when you are lost. What’s common to all of these methods is that they require the receiver of directions to store — or attempt to store — a narrative in memory, and that narrative is bound to contain spatial grams. In the case of written or spoken directions the spatial grams are explicit. In map study, the spatial grams are implicit, but it seems likely that the studier of a map records an internal narrative while looking at the route laid out two-dimensionally, and this narrative will also contain spatial grams. These spatial grams are the conceptual link between our bodies and the space that surrounds us. The more we use them, the more we reinforce the connection of our bodies to a physical space or route.
GPS devices use spatial grams as well; my GPS (or "Sister," as I call her) can say "right turn ahead," "turn around as soon as possible," "stay in the left lane," and many other formulas. But I am not required to store these: as noted above, they are delivered and can be executed in real time, and then discarded.
I’ve given away the fact that I have a relationship with my GPS, and in that respect I am like about a third of GPS users, who talk to their devices. I find it therapeutic to dispute Sister’s directions when I think she is wrong, and compliment her when she saves me a lot of trouble, but beyond that, talking to the GPS seems to supply a need that was a part of old-fashioned wayfinding: a dialog. Dialogs about directions are always an opportunity in which the users of directions employ spatial grams, and that activity further reinforces the physical connection of the person to the route.
So I wonder: are we sacrificing, or allowing to atrophy, a critical component of executive function — the making of cognitive maps — by sending wayfinding to the cloud? Probably not: everyday life still provides many opportunities to rely on old-fashioned wayfinding and its attendant dialogs, such as consulting a map at a shopping mall or a tourist attraction, or even asking the way to the men’s room in a restaurant. But it makes me a little nervous to hand over a skill that I used to perform pretty well to a set of anonymous satellites and the equally anonymous software that connects me to them.