I’m lost without my phone. Physically lost.
With a poor sense of direction and little time, I am completely reliant on my Google Maps app when I travel.
It’s an unhealthy love, a little like technological Stockholm Syndrome: I’m held captive but I don’t want to cut the cord.
Can I part ways with Google Maps?
Google Maps (or a similar service) offers salvation from a bad sense of direction, but it also cleverly makes sure you never, ever need to improve that sense of direction.
The ability to navigate well isn’t something you’re born with, it’s learned. You work on it, like Candy Crush or the clarinet.
Despite some very well-meaning experiments where scientists stuck magnets to people’s heads and blindfolded them, evidence seems humans don’t have an innate sense of magnetic North, like birds flying south in winter.
Knowing whether you are in London or Timbuktu is based on your ability to take advantage of clues in the environment around you (in the case of London or Timbuktu, these would be pretty major).
Traditional cultures that navigate without technology seem to have a better sense of direction than we do in the West. And black taxi drivers in London, who memorise every street in the capital for the gruelling ‘Knowledge’ test to get their license, have been found to have a larger hippocampus – a part of the brain associated with memory and learning.
I suspect the Google Maps app makes my brain lazy. It is packed with information (every street in the entire world, in fact) but – like all our favourite inventions – it doesn’t make me work hard to get it.
If you want to, you can simply hold a phone out in front of you like a compass and follow the direction that the map’s blue arrow sends you in. Who needs to know the name of the street they are on?
But, alongside being hugely grateful for this, I know that sometimes it’s good to put down the devices and reconnect with the world around us.
A physical map is a bit of an alien concept to some of us
So, with a little trepidation, I volunteered to cut Google Maps out of my life for a few days.
First I needed new equipment. I set out to buy an A to Z map, so I wouldn’t have to accost people on the street to ask where I was every 10 yards.
This turned out to be the first challenge. In my app-fuelled ignorance, I thought the shops that sell A to Z maps these days would be stationary and card shops, like Paperchase.
Perhaps, I reasoned, large, cumbersome map books are now considered novelties, to be purchased from the same place as cards, novelty lunchboxes and individual sheets of wrapping paper.
Not only were these shops not equipped for my needs, the sales staff hadn’t even heard of an A to Z. “Eighty’s… head?” one asked, quizzically.
Surely, this was a sign that the task I had taken on was incomprehensible to most people, and perhaps frankly dangerous. Or, as it turned out, that I just should have looked in good old W H Smith, where I found a map and moved on to the actual challenge.
Maps (physical, not digital) are beautiful things. Unlike an app, on which you can swipe with your fingers to reveal endless geography, A to Zs have edges.
You can reach the edge of a place, and then you must locate the new page which you’ve tumbled onto. It’s a jigsaw land, stitched together by some cruel toy master.
Paper maps are resolutely un-personalised and un-customisable: you’ve got think to establish where you are, and it’s unlikely to be in the middle of the picture.
A map’s pages contain vast amounts of knowledge, the kind that we rarely see spread out in physical form any more. (Remember the wonder of big encyclopedia volumes that were so heavy you had to mind your fingers when you shut them? Then there was Wikipedia.)
Using a paper map instead of one on a screen didn’t dramatically change my life. But there were a couple of nice changes that I noticed when I was lugging the book around and navigating for myself:
1) Sometimes, it’s just nice to wander
Making a small change to the way I navigate made me reconsider navigating altogether, and remember it’s about the journey, not just the destination. Looking at my phone less made travel feel more like a mini-adventure.
2) I lost my London know-how
Checking a paper map, I felt like a tourist. But I also felt a lot less like a zombie that needs to feed regularly from the light and warmth of a phone screen.
3) I saw more
Glancing at a map rather than watching a screen meant I looked around me more, and saw a tiny bit more of the world. That’s completely obvious, but being more conscious of what is around you is brilliant. I made friends with a few cats and snooped on some odd front gardens, and probably had fewer brushes with death on roads.
And I even had a moment that moved me, just because I noticed more. Passing Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London, I noticed a bunch of flowers tied to the gates. I ended up looking up the boy who it was placed in memory of: Darwin Kealey, who sadly died in the jail in 2008.
4) I got a bit more creative
Not having a virtual path mapped out for me made me more willing to take a detour, breaking the hold of the Google Maps blue line which was subsconsciously controlling me.
5) I walked more slowly
My unfailing trust in the arrow on Google maps means I often hurtle in the direction it points without looking, so my pace slowed a lot with the paper map.
6) I made more friends
Ok, some were cats, but I also decided to ask people the way a few times rather than grapple with the pages of The Book.
7) I was probably less likely to get mugged
Holding out a book in front of you is certainly less of an enticement to criminals than holding out a shiny new phone. And much less of an enticement that when you rotate it slowly to ‘recalibrate’ when the phone, itself, gets lost.
8) I was less distracted
Using Google Maps opens up the chance to use all the other apps on my phone, meaning I often end up switching between them – again, a bit too much thinking when I should be looking at the lamppost I may be heading for.
9) The UK is full of useful signs
I appreciated them.
So will I be sticking with my paper map?
Sadly, no. It was wonderful to try something new and to cut my phone out of my life a little more: but I won’t be doing it again.
Google Maps is by far the most significant invention in navigation in the last 100 years. Why would I reject that? On my experiment, I missed the ease of using an app – it’s helpful, accurate and time-saving.
But quitting Google Maps did made me think.
When sat navs were invented for cars, much was written about what it might do to our brains, but we don’t really consider this when it comes to personal map apps.
On a spiritual note: what happens when we lose our sense of direction, and our sense of place? We’re most definitely less aware and less engaged.
So I will try to keep some of the little insights that I learned: to look around me, enjoy the journey, and possibly even remember a few street names.
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