The Incredible Lightness of Being…driven
Have you ever noticed that passengers in cars often have little specific awareness of the details of the spatial locations through which vehicles navigate? Often, when these people are driving to a destination they visited previously as a passenger in a vehicle, will say, “Yes, I know we have been there, but I was being driven there and wasn’t paying attention to the route to take.” It appears that many of us conclude that when we are not driving a vehicle we have little reason to know the path between our origin and destination.
When relieved of the duty of navigating and driving between places, passengers are often multitasking while balancing communicating, reading, planning, thinking, napping or solving some goal that is momentarily important. It is very rare that any of these considerations involve navigation, or studying the path that is being followed by the vehicle. While this lack of attention to spatial detail has always been the norm for passengers using almost any mode of transportation, we are now entering an era where, “Technology is transcending geography” to everyone’s eventual detriment.
The growing problem of spatial ignorance is the philosophical issue discussed in today’s blog. It is my contention that society’s lack of attention to what I will call “spatial detail” has increased with the transcendence of mobile networking technology, including mobile phones, portable computers and various forms of navigation devices.
Consider someone who is in communication with other persons, none of whom shares the same geographical location. For everyone involved in this communication system real-world geography often has little or no immediate bearing on the “conversation,” other than its use in grossly categorical geographical descriptions, such as in, “I’m on my way the beach.” The person on the other end of the conversation has no need to travel to the beach to see, talk to, or communicate with the person who is en-route to or at the beach.
Indeed, a person’s location, when considered on a local, regional or national scale, makes little difference in the modern communications paradigm – unless the relationship between those communicating requires physical interaction. In large part the space warping capabilities of modern communications systems (voice, browsing video conferencing, video chat, texting etc.) collapse distance in a way that may render geographic knowledge irrelevant to the users of these systems.
It has occurred to me that the use of devices to assist navigation, such as smart phone maps and routing apps, have promoted a “spider web” geography that reduces the fabric of geographical landscape to a few major threads, diminishing both the importance of the landscape and our understanding of it in the process.
For example, many people who live in Southern California have a generalized mental map of: 1) the freeway system, 2) how some subset of local towns are connected by one or more of these thoroughfares, and 3) the general details of a few local streets that connect the freeways to a destination of interest. However, when requested to detour off the freeway (something WAZE suggests with regularity) the departure from known territory is often quite uncomfortable, as drivers may lack the geographical context that could inform them of where they are traveling and how that connects to the locations with which they are geographically familiar.
If WAZE or some other navigation app cannot accurately guide us, due to map errors for example, we may lack the familiarity with the geographical clues surrounding us that might help get us back on track. Unfortunately, the next generation of technology adopters may suffer even greater disconnects from real-world geography than many people experience today.
It is common to look into your car’s mirror while idling at a signal and see the people in the car behind yours on their mobile phones: texting, browsing, reading and, in a few cases, with the phone pasted to their ear. At the risk being guilty of profiling, it appears to me that, within limits, as the ages of the driver and their mobile cohorts decrease, their focus on networking communications increases while awareness of their geographical surrounding decreases.
The more important observation is that some members of Generation Y (Millennials) and Generation Z (the Boomlets) are or will likely in the future be living a lifestyle that, for practical purposes, is aspatial – i.e. generally lacking an active spatial context. Remember, these are the generations that are not interested in driving a vehicle, nor are they entranced by a car’s features and design. Instead, they want to be driven to their destination so they can optimize their time communicating with others. Cars, drivers’ licenses, automobile insurance, finding parking spaces and wasting time in traffic jams, or focused on driving are inconveniences that are quite reasonably not attractive to anyone, but are especially repulsive to younger generations. The need to optimize time has contributed to the success of Uber, Lyft, ride-sharing applications and other innovations that allow people to get into the back seat of a vehicle and productively, or at least pleasantly, use their time. Unfortunately, riding in the back seat produces tunnel vision in regard to understanding geography and how places are networked together.
This leads me to ponder this question, “If these generations don’t have personal familiarity with the spatial detail of local areas, who will and would that matter?” Some of you may consider this conundrum and, perhaps, think it interesting. Others may see around the corner and understand that “The incredible lightness of being…driven” may become a tragedy that will come to haunt us.
It is often the case that beneficial innovations have use-cases that generate unintended consequences. For example, it sounded like a great idea to put our power grid schematics and controls online, until we realized that the internet is not secure and, perhaps, never will be secure. Now we can see the spatio-temporal aspects of power flows and adjust power availability for them, but not so much for hackers who now can easily disrupt power systems. GPS, for instance, helps us track our location, but did you know that Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) drive PNT systems worldwide? P is for position, N is for navigation and T….well T is for timing. Financial transactions around the world are given a time stamp based on systems such as GPS and the time stamp directs the allocation of financial assets. Not too comforting is it, since GNSS systems have proven to hackable/spoofable? In a similar manner, the loss of local geographical awareness, an unintended consequence of the desire to focus on communication, may eventually be recognized as a significant loss.
Those cabbies in London who study the Knowledge understand the best ways to get around London at any time, regardless of traffic. Conversely, Uber drivers often have little idea of where they are driving in London or anywhere else and rely on TomTom, Garmin, Google and other devices for guidance. At some point this reliance on online spatial databases will render the notion of map accuracy even more important than it is today, because no one will actually know how to navigate where they are going or WHERE their destination is located. Others may be unable to evaluate whether the path they are being told to drive is something that should even be attempted.
So there it is – now you know why I blog about map accuracy and the sorry state of online spatial databases. Someday soon the default source of geographical knowledge – international, national and local – will be online spigots that pour geography from vast reservoirs of poorly curated spatial data. That idea raises many interesting questions – and having important, complex problems to solve is part of what makes life so interesting for those of us in geography, mapping and GIS. I guess some of us were very lucky when geography chose us to participate.