map compass

Google Maps Is Making Us Stupid! Three Steps to Repair the Damage

For me, it started with Mapquest.

I am famous among my friends for getting lost on city streets, so for me, the advent of an online mapping website was a godsend. How awesome that I could punch in a starting address and an endpoint, and voila! I knew exactly how to get to my destination…and I knew how long it would take.

But Mapquest was just my gateway drug.

A few years after I first dabbled in Mapquest, I purchased a new car. And this car came with in-dash GPS. My, oh, my. Mapquest was good and all, but having a navigator TALK TO ME IN MY CAR?! It was like I had been taking children’s aspirin all these years, and suddenly, someone handed me a Percocet. The pain of being lost was gone!

Of course, like any drug, I eventually needed more. And my “more” came in the form of Google Maps on my iPhone.

Now, instead of just using a magic cybernavigator in my vehicle, I had a navigator in my pocket, no matter where I was in the world! When I was in Sydney, Australia, and I needed a coffee fix from the Number One Flat White barista in town, I just punched in the digits and followed the little blue dot on my screen until I walked into the front door of caffeine nirvana.

But here’s the rub: ask me HOW I got to the coffee shop. Ask me to repeat my walk from the hotel to the café on my own, just navigating off the landmarks along the way. Should be easy, right? After all, I’ve walked there before. Recently, even!

The problem is, by relying solely on my smartphone GPS, I was positively oblivious to my surroundings. Sure, I would glance up to make sure no cars were barreling down upon me when I needed to cross a road, but otherwise, my focus was on my screen.

I know I’m not alone in this. And I know something has to change.

Aside from the stories we read—ranging from the amusing to the awful—about people naively following their GPS to undesirable ends, we need to look at this communal loss of our sense of direction as both a human tragedy and a preparedness emergency. Sure, GPS is convenient, but we’re paying for this convenience with our sense of direction. We’re losing our ability to dead-reckon. We throwing away our inborn capability to build and retain cognitive maps.

But luckily, there’s hope! All animals are born with an inherent ability to find their way in space. If a sparrow can find it’s way from Point A to Point B, so can you.


screenshot google map

Google Maps: the poison is in the dose

Start, ironically, with Google Maps

Or really, you can start with any map, paper or otherwise. Just find a map that shows you the layout of your area of interest. Get an idea of what direction your destinations lie in relative to your location. Also get a sense of the spatial distance between locations.

compass map cardinal directions

The compass may be overkill at this point, but it looks cool!

Learn the local landmarks for the cardinal directions

Got mountains nearby! Then you’re in huge luck! Figure out what cardinal direction those suckers are in, and orient yourself accordingly. So, for example, say the mountains lie to the east of town. Then you know that when you face away from the mountains, you’re pointing west.

No natural landmarks? Then find some other large visual aids. Perhaps there’s a big water tower, or a looming skyscraper. Really look at your surroundings and find some touchpoints.

cypress tree prevailing wind

Gee, I wonder where the prevailing winds come from?

Learn a few natural signs to indicate direction

You’ve heard that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, right? But did you know this isn’t exactly true? Because the north pole is tilted toward the sun during the summer—and away from the sun in the winter—the sun rises in the NORTHeast during the warmer months and the SOUTHeast during the cooler months. Boom! Now you have another touchstone for the cardinal directions.

Another useful tidbit: trees clearly grow in accordance to prevailing wind direction. The side facing the wind will be scrawnier, and the side away from the wind will be more robust. It sort of looks like a woman with her hair being blown by the wind. If her hair were green, that is. Find out what the prevailing wind patterns are for your region of the world, and then use the trees accordingly.

BONUS: navigate via the stars!

* * * * *

Of course there are far more advanced techniques for natural navigation, but for the purposes of this blog entry, let’s just concentrate on regaining our basic cognitive mapping. We need to remember how to rely on not just one “clue” (i.e., the route on our smartphone), but rather, how to gain a sense of where we are in space by weaving together the cluster of clues that are present in our immediate environment.

All things have their purpose, but let’s use some common sense going forward. Let’s employ Google Maps as a tool to serve us…not a master to hobble us.

Want to learn even more about to rely on yourself rather than technology?
Download my free “Emergency Preparedness for Women” guide

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *