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Author of The Glass Cage, Nicholas Carr, on where automation is taking us and the effect our increasing reliance on digital maps may be having on our minds.  For a chance to win the Think Smarter reading list, sign up to the newsletter by 31st January.

Sat nav devices and digital maps may make our lives easier, but they also steal something important from us.

Nicholas Carr

For ages, human beings have been inventing tools to reduce the strain of travel. History is, among other things, a record of the discovery of ingenious new ways to ease our passage through our environs, to make it possible to cross greater and more daunting distances without getting lost, roughed up, or eaten. Simple maps and trail markers came first, then star maps and nautical charts, then instruments like astrolabes, compasses, and sextants. Lighthouses were erected along shorelines, buoys set in coastal waters. Roads were paved, signs posted, highways linked and numbered. It has, for most of us, been a long time since we’ve had to rely solely on our innate navigational sense to get around.

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GPS receivers and other computerised mapping and direction-plotting devices are the latest additions to our navigational toolkit. They also give the old story a new and worrisome twist. Earlier navigational aids, particularly those available and affordable to ordinary folks, were just that: aids. They were designed to give travelers a greater awareness of the world around them — to sharpen their sense of direction, provide them with advance warning of danger, highlight nearby landmarks and other points of orientation, and in general help them situate themselves in both familiar and alien settings. Satellite navigation systems can do all those things, and more, but they’re not designed to deepen our involvement with our surroundings. They’re designed to relieve us of the need for such involvement. By taking control of the mechanics of navigation and reducing our own role to following routine commands — turn left in five hundred yards, take the next exit, stay right — the systems end up isolating us from the environment. As a team of Cornell University researchers put it in a 2008 paper, “With the GPS you no longer need to know where you are and where your destination is, attend to physical landmarks along the way, or get assistance from other people in the car and outside of it.” The automation of wayfinding serves to “inhibit the process of experiencing the physical world by navigation through it.”

We want to see computer maps as interactive, high-tech versions of paper maps, but that’s a mistaken assumption. Traditional maps give us context. They provide us with an overview of an area and require us to figure out our current location and then plan or visualise the best route to our next stop. That mental effort aids our mind in creating its own cognitive map of an area. Map reading, research has shown, strengthens our sense of place and hones our navigational skills — in ways that can make it easier for us to get around even when we don’t have a map at hand. We seem, without knowing it, to call on our subconscious memories of paper maps in orienting ourselves in a city or town and determining which way to head to arrive at our destination. In one revealing experiment, researchers found that people’s navigational sense is actually sharpest when they’re facing north — the same way maps point.

Paper maps don’t just shepherd us from one place to the next; they teach us how to think about space.

The maps generated by sat nav computers are different. They usually provide meager spatial information and few navigational cues. Instead of requiring us to puzzle out where we are in an area, a GPS device simply sets us at the center of the map and then makes the world circulate around us. In this miniature parody of the pre-Copernican universe, we can get around without needing to know where we are, where we’ve been, or which direction we’re heading. We just need an address or an intersection, the name of a building or a shop, to cue the device’s calculations. Julia Frankenstein, a German cognitive psychologist who studies the mind’s navigational sense, believes it’s likely that “the more we rely on technology to find our way, the less we build up our cognitive maps.” Because computer navigation systems provide only “bare-bones route information, without the spatial context of the whole area,” she explains, our brains don’t receive the raw material required to form rich memories of places. “Developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes.”

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Other scientists agree. A UK study found that drivers using paper maps developed stronger memories of routes and landmarks than did those relying on turn-by-turn instructions from satellite systems. After completing a trip, the map users were able to sketch more precise and detailed diagrams of their routes. The findings, reported the researchers, “provide strong evidence that the use of a vehicle navigation system will impact negatively on the formation of drivers’ cognitive maps.” A study of US drivers found evidence of “inattentional blindness” in sat nav users, which impaired their “wayfinding performance” and their ability to form visual memories of their surroundings. GPS-wielding pedestrians appear to suffer the same disabilities. In an experiment conducted in Japan, researchers had a group of people walk to a series of destinations in a city. Half of the subjects were given hand-held GPS devices; the rest used paper maps. The ones with the maps took more direct routes, had to pause less often, and formed clearer memories of where they’d been than did the ones with the gadgets.

A loss of navigational acumen can have dire consequences for airline pilots and lorry drivers. Most of us, in our daily routines of driving and walking and otherwise getting around, are unlikely to find ourselves in such perilous spots. Which raises the obvious question: Who cares? As long as we arrive at our destination, does it really matter whether we maintain our navigational sense or offload it to a machine? Those of us living in lands crisscrossed by well marked roads and furnished with gas stations, motels, and 7-Elevens long ago lost both the custom of and the capacity for prodigious feats of wayfinding. Our ability to perceive and interpret topography, especially in its natural state, is already much reduced. Paring it away further, or dispensing with it altogether, doesn’t seem like such a big deal, particularly if in exchange we get an easier go of it.

But while we may no longer have much of a cultural stake in the conservation of our navigational prowess, we still have a personal stake in it. We are, after all, creatures of the earth. We’re not abstract dots proceeding along thin blue lines on computer screens. We’re real beings in real bodies in real places. Getting to know a place takes effort, but it ends in fulfillment and in knowledge. It provides a sense of personal accomplishment and autonomy, and it also provides a sense of belonging, a feeling of being at home in a place rather than passing through it.

We may grimace when we hear people talk of “finding themselves,” but the figure of speech, however vain and shopworn, acknowledges our deeply held sense that who we are is tangled up in where we are. We can’t extract the self from its surroundings, at least not without leaving something important behind.

A GPS device, by allowing us to get from point A to point B with the least possible effort and nuisance, can make our lives easier. But what it steals from us, when we turn to it too often, is the joy and satisfaction of apprehending the world around us — and of making that world a part of us. In his book Being Alive, Tim Ingold, an anthropologist at the University of Aberdeen, draws a distinction between two very different modes of travel: wayfaring and transport. Wayfaring, he explains, is “our most fundamental way of being in the world.” Immersed in the landscape, attuned to its textures and features, the wayfarer enjoys “an experience of movement in which action and perception are intimately coupled.” Wayfaring becomes “an ongoing process of growth and development, or self-renewal.” Transport, on the other hand, is “essentially destination-oriented.” It’s not so much a process of discovery “along a way of life” as a mere “carrying across, from location to location, of people and goods in such a way as to leave their basic natures unaffected.” In transport, the traveller doesn’t actually move in any meaningful way. “Rather, he is moved, becoming a passenger in his own body.”

Wayfaring is messier and less efficient than transport, which is why it has become a target for automation. “If you have a mobile phone with Google Maps,” says Michael Jones, an executive in Google’s mapping division, “you can go anywhere on the planet and have confidence that we can give you directions to get to where you want to go safely and easily.” As a result, he declares, “No human ever has to feel lost again.” That certainly sounds appealing, as if some basic problem in our existence had been solved forever. And it fits the Silicon Valley obsession with using software to rid people’s lives of “friction.” But the more you think about it, the more you realise that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are. “When we circumvent, by whatever means, the demand a place makes of us to find our way through it,” the writer Ari Schulman has observed, we end up foreclosing “the best entry we have into inhabiting that place—and, by extension, to really being anywhere at all.”

We may foreclose other things as well. Neuroscientists have made a series of breakthroughs in understanding how the brain perceives and remembers space and location, and the discoveries underscore the elemental role that navigation plays in the workings of mind and memory. In a landmark study conducted at University College London in the early 1970s, John O’Keefe and Jonathan Dostrovsky monitored the brains of lab rats as the rodents moved about an enclosed area. As a rat became familiar with the space, individual neurons in its hippocampus—a part of the brain that plays a central role in memory formation—would begin to fire every time the animal passed a certain spot. These location-keyed neurons, which the scientists dubbed “place cells” and which have since been found in the brains of other mammals, including humans, can be thought of as the signposts the brain uses to mark out a territory. Every time you enter a new place, whether a city square or the kitchen of a neighbor’s house, the area is quickly mapped out with place cells. The cells, as O’Keefe has explained, appear to be activated by a variety of sensory signals, including visual, auditory, and tactile cues, “each of which can be perceived when the animal is in a particular part of the environment.”

More recently, in 2005, a team of Norwegian neuroscientists, led by the couple Edvard and May-Britt Moser, discovered a different set of neurons involved in charting, measuring, and navigating space, which they named “grid cells.” Located in the entorhinal cortex, a region closely related to the hippocampus, the cells create in the brain a precise geographic grid of space, consisting of an array of regularly spaced, equilateral triangles. The Mosers compared the grid to a sheet of graph paper in the mind, on which an animal’s location is traced as it moves about. Whereas place cells map out specific locations, grid cells provide a more abstract map of space that remains the same wherever an animal goes, providing an inner sense of dead reckoning.

In addition to their role in navigation, the specialised cells appear to be involved more generally in the formation of memories, particularly memories of events and experiences. In fact, O’Keefe and the Mosers, who last year received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discoveries, have begun to theorise that the “mental travel” of memory is governed by the same brain systems that enable us to get around in the world. In a 2013 article in Nature Neuroscience, Edvard Moser and his colleague György Buzsáki provided extensive experimental evidence that “the neuronal mechanisms that evolved to define the spatial relationship among landmarks can also serve to embody associations among objects, events and other types of factual information.” Out of such associations we weave the memories of our lives. It may well be that the brain’s navigational sense — its ancient, intricate way of plotting and recording movement through space — is the evolutionary font of all memory.

What’s more than a little scary is what happens when that font goes dry. Our spatial sense tends to deteriorate as we get older, and in the worst cases we lose it altogether. One of the earliest and most debilitating symptoms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, is hippocampal and entorhinal degeneration and the consequent loss of locational memory. Victims begin to forget where they are. Véronique Bohbot, a research psychiatrist and memory expert at McGill University in Montreal, has conducted studies demonstrating that the way people exercise their navigational skills influences the functioning and even the size of the hippocampus—and may provide protection against the deterioration of memory.

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The harder people work at building cognitive maps of space, the stronger their underlying memory circuits seem to become. They can actually grow grey matter in the hippocampus—a phenomenon documented in cab drivers—in a way that’s analogous to the building of muscle mass through physical exertion.

But when they simply follow turn-by-turn instructions in “a robotic fashion,” Bohbot warns, they don’t “stimulate their hippocampus” and as a result may leave themselves more susceptible to memory loss. Bohbot worries that, should the hippocampus begin to atrophy from a lack of use in navigation, the result could be a general loss of memory and a growing risk of dementia. “Society is geared in many ways toward shrinking the hippocampus,” she told an interviewer. “In the next twenty years, I think we’re going to see dementia occurring earlier and earlier.”

Bohbot and other researchers emphasise that more studies need to be done before we’ll know for sure whether long-term use of sat nav devices weakens memory and raises the risk of senility. But as we learn more about the close links between navigation, the hippocampus, and memory, it seems entirely plausible that avoiding the work of figuring out where we are and where we’re going may have unforeseen and less than salubrious consequences. Because memory is what enables us not only to recall past events but to respond intelligently to present events and plan for future ones, any degradation in its functioning would tend to diminish the quality of our lives.

Through hundreds of thousands of years, evolution has fit our bodies and minds to the environment. We’ve been formed by being, to appropriate a couple of lines from Wordsworth, “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

The automation of navigation distances us from the environment that shaped us. It encourages us to observe and manipulate symbols on screens rather than attend to real things in real places. The wayfinding work that Google and other technology companies would have us see as mere drudgery may turn out to be vital to our fitness, happiness, and well-being.

So “Who cares?” probably isn’t the right question. What we should be asking ourselves is, “How far from the world do we want to retreat?”.

Nicholas Carr is the author of The Glass Cage: Where Automation Is Taking Us (The Bodley Head), from which this article has been adapted.

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