I am a huge fan of maps. I used to spend hours reading maps, studying the pages in my Atlas, yet ironically I get lost all the time, and most people that know me well say I have a terrible sense of direction.
And they would be right, I do have a terrible sense of direction.
Map making and map reading are sadly becoming kind of a lost art I think, particularly since the rise of online services like Mapquest and Google Maps, and more recently with the widespread availability decreasing cost of GPS technology. No need to really understand the environment all that much when you can easily get turn by turn directions from the internet, and dashboard GPS systems can soothingly talk you through your journeys. It is my hope that these 'talking' GPS systems can get smarter though, offering up some insight along the way. 'This is the last Dunkin' Donuts you will pass before your highway entrance in 1.3 miles, so if you want a coffee, you better stop now'.
It is an improvement I suppose, and a comfort for the many of us that are geographically challenged. These capabilities save time, provide assurance, and largely take the risk out of getting from Point A to Point B.
But on the odd occasion when the Google Map is wrong, or the GPS can't grab a signal and we are back to having to resort to 'old' methods of navigating often are the most interesting and potentially valuable. I think we underestimate the benefit of finding our own way.
I recently heard a very sound piece of advice that was given in the context of the introduction of a new workplace technology that would significantly impact the methods and work processes of a large number of employees. The advice was essentially:
'Don't tell the employees all of the detailed and wonderful new features of the technology, but rather get them started, give them a guide, and allow them to discover all of the potential and real benefits of the new tools.'
I think that was great advice, when a major change effort is underway or a new technology will force people to find a new direction from Point A to Point B, simply handing them the step by step directions and navigating for them will only be partially successful. Sure, most all of them will arrive at Point B, but will any of them have an opportunity for exploration? Will anyone drive off the main road and poke around a bit? Will anyone be encouraged enough to chart a new path, one that may get them to Point B faster or having discovered some interesting and possibly valuable sights along the way?
And perhaps Point B is not the only, or best destination at all? Sticking to the 'script' would almost never allow that kind of insight to be gained.
Whenever I have to go to an unfamiliar place I usually print off the Google Maps directions marking the way. I follow them step by step and almost always arrive where I need to be. But the Google Map never encourages me to take a detour, stop and look around, or even to reevaluate if I should be going to my destination in the first place.
I think the next time I have to go somewhere new, I think I will try old fashioned way, grab a map from the gas station and have a go. Of course if I get very badly lost I will have to fire up the GPS. I could never ask someone for directions, I am a man after all.
Image Note: I came across the artwork of Shannon Rankin from a post on the Junkculture blog. This piece is from the 'Maps' series where the artist deconstructs maps to create new geographies, suggesting the potential for a broader landscape.