Over the past couple of months, I've come across a few stories of mis-adventures with maps. The first involved a man who blamed his GPS for guiding him to the wrong side of the road. The second involved the discovery that an island appearing on several maps in the Coral Sea does not appear to exist. The third involved "Apple Map Disasters" reported in the February 2013 edition of APC Magazine (p. 15). The first two of these stories amazed me for different, but perhaps related, reasons, while the third provides something of an explanation.
The driver involved in the wrong-side-of-the-road episode presumably allowed his technological assistance to over-ride his pre-GPS-navigator skills of reading road signs and following road markings. One or two of the commentators in the story also blame "distraction", which I also believe to be a hallmark of poor user interfaces. Either way, technology has frustrated a skill possessed by any competent driver. >
An unnamed APC staff member seemes to have suffered a similar lapse when Apple Maps' guidance led him to lug his equipment for ten minutes in the wrong direction down a street. On any ordinary Australian street, a simple glance at the street numbers would have told him the correct direction in which to go. Here, indeed, seems to be a pair of cases in which technology has made us stupid by causing its users to overlook their own skills in favour of technology that is not, in fact, adequate to replace them.
The existence or not of obscure islands sounds like a problem out of the seventeenth century, except that we now have Google Maps to blame. The Sydney Morning Herald, which seems to have broken the story, made much of the fact that Google Maps records a "Sandy Island" in the Coral Sea that could not be found by a recent scientific expedition. The story was consequently picked up as "IT news" by The Register and IEEE Spectrum. Shaun Higgins of the Auckland Museum (among others), however, points out that the supposed island pre-dates Google Maps, and, indeed, any computerised mapping system. It seems that Google Maps was simply repeating an error made by cartographers for a hundred years or more, yet news outlets interpreted the whole thing as an "IT glitch". (I should point out that all is not lost: the Sydney Morning Herald itself followed up with Shaun Higgins' explanation, and numerous commenters on The Register offered plausible suggestions on how the error might have come about without Google's intervention.)
APC quotes an explanation of Apple Maps' problems given by Mike Dobson. Apple, he thinks, relied on computerised quality-assurance algorithms without any human oversight to check that the algorithms themselves were correct. News outlets presuming Google Maps to be the source of all cartographic knowledge, I think, risk falling into a similar trap.
Ordinary users, I suppose, could arguably be forgiven for presuming that the products of big-name companies like Google, Apple and in-car navigation manufacturers meet certain standards of quality. Yet we all know that technology makers are fallible, and that even a device that performs one task well might not perform a related one at all. Perhaps "trust, but verify" would be better advice?
Continuing the adventure of train timetables from my previous entry, I recently asked a similar group of friends if anyone could give me a lift to the nearest railway station. I was astonished to find that none of them appeared to know the location of the railway station, even though all of them drove right past it on their way home.
I suppose that my own perspective is biased by my preference to travel by foot and public transport: my car-driving friends might be similarly astonished that I can't comprehend the desire to live in or visit XXXX Heights that has never seen a bus or train, and which I think might as well be on the moon.
Nonetheless, I've long felt that car-dependent people have a somewhat less intimate understanding of geography than those of us who take the time to walk through it. I get a similar feeling after travelling by underground train in cities like London and Tokyo, where I'm effectively teleported from one part of the city to another without any experience of what lies between.
More generally, it seems that technology-dependent people have a less intimate understanding of the world around them -- at least in the sense that they don't experience it directly, even if people with modern educations have a better theoretical understanding of physics, biology, etc. than their Stone Age forebears.
This seems like a bad thing, but it is surely inevitable: no one person could experience everything we know about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and all the rest. My mode of travel aside, I don't farm my own food, prepare my own medicines, or even build my own computers.
An early chapter of Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen talks about people with "transparent" and "opaque" views of computers. People with transparent views are interested in how computers work, while those with an opaque view are only interested in what they can do. Before reading Life on the Screen, I sometimes characterised non-technical people as having a "magic box view" of computers.
I found Turkle's discussion refreshing in that she doesn't make one view superior to other, where computer nerds might consider the opaque view stupid and ignorant while woollier minds might disparage engineers as boring and inhuman. I've since come to think of good engineering and design, at least in part, as using the transparent view to enable the opaque view (or to enable the "magic" in my former terminology).
Perhaps the transparent view of technology (and geography) provides a more direct and complete experience of the world, and the person who took an opaque view of everything would surely be a supremely ignorant and uninquisitive one. But it clearly isn't practical to take a transparent view of everything all the time, and the opaque view is a very practical one.
I've long carried a printed timetable for the railway line that I use most often. A couple of weeks ago, I pulled it out in order to check when the next train home left.
The friends that I was with asked me why I didn't have a more modern appliance for doing such things. I said that "It works and it's free". I then went on to my standard explanation that, as someone who sits at a computer all day at work and who also has a computer at home, I don't feel the need to have one while I'm walking around the place as well. (I don't actually sit at a computer all day now that I'm a teacher, but this explanation comes from when I worked as a programmer.)
One of the friends reminisced about the days in which she had a complete collection of printed timetables for Sydney's rail network. I have no doubt that an electronic device containing all of this information would be more convenient than such a collection, and one of the few mobile apps I've seen that actually seemed interesting to me is one that provides timetables for public transport in various cities (including Sydney).
Still, I have no plans to replace my printed timetable. For one, it does work quite well for all of the routine trips that I take, and it is free, which cannot be said about mobile devices and mobile data plans. I use the CityRail and TransportInfo sites from my home computer to plan non-routine trips, but I find these sites to be a little clumsy compared to looking up my printed timetable for routine trips.
More importantly, perhaps, I also enjoy the challenge of working out the most efficient public transport route for myself. For me, an app that works out how to get from A to B would be like an app that solves crosswords or games of patience: efficient, maybe, but not very entertaining.