It seemed like a great idea. We were two American journalists visiting London and had a dinner party to attend. Why travel underground on the Tube when we could rent a couple of bicycles and see the city? But somehow it all went wrong.
We rode our bikes past Westminster Bridge, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, then headed south toward Pimlico, where we were expected for dinner. My friend Tom decided to take a scenic route, following the River Thames’ northern bank. At a critical intersection, his phone’s turn-by-turn GPS directions gave instructions that seemed counterintuitive, but we followed them, became totally lost, and arrived two hours late at our destination, rumpled and humiliated.
Humans are uniquely capable of becoming lost, so over time we’ve had to create a variety of strategies for finding our way.
The irony of our tardiness was lost on no one. I was in London to attend a conference held by the Royal Institute of Navigation on the biology of animal navigation. What mechanisms allow sea turtles, whales, and migratory birds find their way across thousands of miles with unerring precision? Tom and I had perfectly illustrated the gaping divide between humans and the animal kingdom when it comes to orientation and navigation.
Humans are uniquely capable of becoming lost, so over time we’ve had to create a variety of strategies for finding our way. For one thing, our brains have evolved incredibly developed and large hippocampi, the neural locus of wayfinding and episodic memory, than would be predicted for other closely related species, which allows us to employ memory in the task of navigating. Additionally, we have long used diverse cultural practices for navigating, from environmental cues like the sun and stars to oral storytelling as mnemonic devices for recalling topographic information. In the Western world, the most dominant of these practices has historically been the map — once drawn by hand and now rendered by GPS devices.
So why is it that our maps — digital or otherwise — so often get us lost? For one thing, they’re usually used for exploring unfamiliar places. Many indigenous navigators, in contrast, practice their skills across large but generally known areas; even if the individual does not have direct experience of a place, they will likely have heard descriptions of it, some of which are passed down generationally. For Westerners, the combination of a lack of local knowledge and unquestioned faith in the power of a map can be disastrous, particularly when we forgo our own perception, instincts, and problem-solving skills. Far from home and familiar reference points, Tom and I followed our GPS’s directions, compounding one bad decision after another, even though we knew Pimlico was south.
People seem to have an astonishing ability to believe their GPS is always right, even when such belief defies logic. In 2016, for instance, an American tourist arrived in Iceland and put the address of his hotel, which he knew was 40 minutes away in Reykjavik, into his rental car’s GPS device. He then drove six hours to a small village in the north of the country, not knowing he had inadvertently added an extra “r” to the name of the road. Along the way, he passed signs indicating Reykjavik was in the opposite direction but his faith in his GPS eclipsed what he could see with his own eyes.
It could also be that our unshakeable trust in GPS has historical roots that go deeper than the technology itself (which has only been on the mass market for a couple of decades). In his book “Masons, Tricksters, and Cartographers,” David Turnbull, an Australian scholar, investigates how maps came to be so embedded in modern consciousness, to the degree that we fail to consider other ways of accumulating knowledge.
“We are largely unconscious of the centrality of maps in contemporary Western life precisely because they are so ubiquitous, so profoundly constitutive of our thinking and culture,” he writes. “We are bombarded by maps in our newspapers, on our televisions, in our books, and in our getting around the modern world. The cartographic trope is all pervasive.”
Turnbull locates the origins of this phenomenon in the cartographic revolution around 1600 in Europe. At that time, maps began to be seen as emblematic of scientific knowledge, and in exchange scientific theories were conceived as maplike. The culmination of this process, according to Turnbull, came in 18th-century France when “state, science, and cartography became so strongly intermeshed that in effect they coproduced one another.” The result of this historical process is the conviction that “maps are a mimetic reflection of external objective space.”
The truth is more complex. Maps are far from culturally universal, and they are far from objective. Different cultures have produced different ways of building knowledge, particularly about space. For instance, in the Kalahari Desert, the Hai||om San people are expert hunters and trackers, capable of finding their way across vast distances, yet do not use a map. Anthropologist Thomas Widlok has found that it is language — the Hai||om San’s use of spatial description in conversation — that constantly reinforces their orientation skills. They use geocentric coordinates to describe space, and also engage in what Widlok calls topographical gossip, constantly sharing information about places, travels and the landscape that allow them to fix their location.
Maps represent a point of view, and the map reader brings subjective ideas, knowledge, and experience to the act of interpreting them. And that’s when maps can often seem to betray us. Years ago, I set off in a car from the capital of Mozambique, driving south with the intention of crossing the border into South Africa. I felt completely confident about my route because I had a small map in my glove compartment. But as night fell, I discovered that the “road” on the map I was following had become a sandy track meandering through an elephant preserve. Soon this sand track was just one of hundreds crossing each other maze-like through grassland, and my car became stuck, unable to go forward or backward. I resigned myself to sleeping on the roof before I was rescued in the middle of the night by a passing LandCruiser.
Had I simply been paying attention to the landscape around me, rather than focused on the infallibility of my map, I would have likely noticed how poor the roads were gradually becoming, even though they looked like highways on the piece of paper. What might I have done differently? Perhaps to have remembered that, as Turnbull points out, maps “are not the only way of knowing the world or assembling knowledge.”
I might have stopped to ask a local for directions.
M.R. O’Connor, a 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, writes about the politics and ethics of science, technology, and conservation. She is the author of, most recently, “Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World.”