By Greg Milner
Reliance on GPS erodes our ability to build our own cognitive maps
“Your GPS is WRONG,” the sign proclaims. “This is a NOT Mt. Rushmore.” It seems a quirk in Google Maps’ database is leading drivers in search of the monument to a seemingly random spot on a highway, 13 miles away. The message is clear: you can believe GPS when it says you have arrived at one of America’s most iconic destinations—or you can believe your lying eyes.
This deception is common—and we are easy marks. Since the rise of consumer turn-by-turn satellite navigation units in the mid-2000s, there has been increasing evidence that GPS is messing with our heads. Every week seems to bring another story, some combination of baffling and tragic. Around the world, drivers follow that soothing voice of GPS into harms way. They drive into oceans and rivers, off decommissioned bridges, down hiking trails that GPS insists are roads. So many of them have found themselves stranded in the wasteland of Death Valley that park rangers gave the incidents a name: “death by GPS.”
When we hear of the couple who wound up in the Italian city of Carpi, after misspelling “Capri”; or the woman who police say drove the wrong way on Interstate 35, on the advice of GPS; or the American tourist in Iceland who wanted to drive to Reykjavik, but found himself in a remote fishing village; or the truly vexing case of the woman in Belgium who blindly followed GPS all the way to Croatia, it seems clear these people turned off part of their brain after turning on the ignition.
But we judge others’ failures at our own peril. Can we really fault the Canadian couple who, while trying to reach Las Vegas, vanishedinto some of the most inaccessible mountain terrain in the country, because GPS directed them to a “road” that ran through it. Or the woman on her way to (chillingly) Deception Bay in Australia, who flippedher car into a creek, and barely escaped with her two small children—local residents have long known that computerized map databases misleadingly call that road a highway, but how could she?