Exploring Local
Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

Are PNDs Making Us Stoopid?

May 27th, 2009 by MDob

And now for something completely different.

Before any of you think the use of “stoopid” is a typo or spelling error, please know that it is a takeoff on an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “Is Google Making us Stupid?” , which I highly recommend reading, if you have not already seen it.

When I was still a university professor (just after the Reformation), I spent several years contemplating visual perception and the use of maps. In fact, my dissertation was on eye movements and map reading. Eventually I passed beyond figuring out how the eye and brain coordinated to acquire targets while “reading” maps and began thinking about the underlying processes. I wondered then if pattern recognition by humans was really a parallel process or simply an extremely speedy serial process that was advantaged by our neural network. I was interested in the answer to this question, because I felt that it might be key to developing an understanding how to improve visual search and learning.

Lately, I have realized that devoting any more thought to these concepts would have been a mistake. Do people today actually understand how to use maps or the purpose they serve? I have found myself wondering, in idle moments waiting for a link to resolve, if we continue to learn from maps or if that is an outdated concept.

While driving to San Diego this weekend to see the Padres give the Chicago Cubs a drubbing, I came to the realization that the using PNDs or printouts of routes generated online are major contributors to geographic illiteracy. From an educational perspective, those of us using these navigation aids are driving in tunnels – everywhere we go!

In the past, in order to navigate to a new location, a person had to examine a map, find where they were located on the map, find the location of their destination and chart a route between the two locations. During this visual examination, they were exposed to the topology of places, the distribution of features on the map and some geographic context related to the area of travel. Consider the modern alternative.

When using the PND, it uses GPS to tell where your journey is originating (you do not even have to know where you are). Although it depends on you to select a destination by entering some sort of address information, it creates a route for you connecting these places based on your choice of one of several routing preferences.

When using one of these aids (a PND or a printout from MapQuest, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo or some other service) you pay little attention to where you are, since you do not need to recognize landmarks to identify your current location or where you need to go next. When your device indicates its time to get off the Interstate, you have no idea where you are and really don’t care, since it provides information on the next maneuver needed to get to wherever you are going. Eventually you emerge from the “tunnel” and realize that “wherever you go, there you are.” (Thanks, Buckaroo Banzai).

I realize that PNDs and navigation sytems provide a service, but is the service making us dumber?

I think that perhaps we are becoming a society without geography. From the perspective of many travelers, the world is simply a series of places connected by routes. Distance is meaningless, only time matters. Worse, places you do not go, do not exist. Yep, it’s now a Tinker Toy world, as routes are sticks and those strange geegaws at the end are the only places that really matter. Sort of like the Internet – I guess, as it too appears to have replaced thinking with cataloging, while converting deep thought into quick links.

If we ever run out of electricity – What are you going to do? Speaking of that, read this –

I saw a survey the other day, in which is was indicated that frequent travelers thought that power plugs on airplanes were the most important technology in the cabin. I kind of though that a toilet that could flush at 40,000 feet was pretty important technology and one that I would prefer to have over a power plug to charge my laptop. With all apologies to the comedian George Wallace I need to borrow his saying to describe the frequent flyers participating in the survey – “You people are sick!”, while adding my own – “some people are stoopid.”

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Posted in blah, Google, Mapping, Mike Dobson, Personal Navigation

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