GPS and GIS Technology Changing the Culture of Navigation

By Eva Dodsworth

Time, technology and user needs are constantly changing the way we do things, often making them easier and less expensive. When technology becomes affordable, individuals and industries are motivated to use it. When two great technologies are combined, a new innovation is created. Such is the case with GPS and GIS. On their own, GPS and GIS are fabulous inventions, but when combined, they provide results that neither of the products can deliver alone. As has been the case with many inventions, the resultant technology forever changes the way we do things.

What was once a simple navigational aid is now a personal, interactive mapping and directional device. Portable Navigation Devices (PNDs) used in automobiles are one of the most popular 'gadgets" available today, with thousands of street maps and related points of interest packaged with the hardware. This rich mapping resource provides drivers with customized routes. Drivers turn when they're told to do so, and arrive at their destination within the estimated time specified. Many drivers take advantage of the ability to calculate the shortest route. They try to avoid dense traffic and slower roads.

In an age where everyone is trying to beat the clock, a PND reflects our needs and values. We seem to no longer have patience for, or acceptance of, delays, distractions and unanticipated circumstances. We do not appreciate inconvenient surprises such as road detours, expensive gas stations or closed coffee shops. We now rely on technology to not only speed up our processes but to reduce our own efforts. We no longer need to exercise our minds and memories recalling landmarks and street names. We're missing the changing leaves of trees, the older century stone homes on the side of the road and the farm animals in the open fields, as we have no need to look anywhere but straight ahead of us. We won't be conversing in the car as freely, or singing out loud with the radio, because we'll be waiting for the next turn direction from our PND.

How will the young driver of today be affected by this rather novel way of getting from point A to point B? Will she have folded road maps in her glove compartment? Will he have any concept of direction - east and west - and will he make note of where streets bend, end or change names? They may not know where streets intersect and may not have any spatial concept of where they are. Unlike today's adults, they may have difficulty communicating directions to one another. If they were left on foot to walk or cycle to their destination, would they arrive successfully?

With PNDs now available on most new car models, they are becoming regularly used commodities. However, most drivers take the same route driving to work and back each day and most likely wouldn't need to utilize their PND. Perhaps some drivers will use it when on vacation. Adventurers traveling to new places could certainly use a little bit of navigational assistance as well as digital maps of their driving route. Although a PND provides convenience, calculates routes and offers the security of knowing that you are headed in the right direction, it is not only rendering paper maps obsolete, it is changing the culture of navigation.

Folding and unfolding paper maps, following the route with your finger and making decisions on alternative routes are all part of travel! In a hurry, you may opt for the expressway; otherwise you may choose to take the scenic route. If you've lost your sense of direction, stop by a service station and talk to a local. A vacation is often about adventure, being spontaneous and seeing things you weren't expecting or planning. It's these little unplanned experiences that create memories. You can stop at visitor centers, pick up local maps and plan your day in a coffee shop. Bring your map with you and take a walk around the town - walk through wooded forests and dense areas that your PND couldn't find - and get lost a little bit. Use trail markers to find your way back; use the sun to give you a sense of direction and time of day. A vacation is a time to have time. You're in no hurry and you certainly don't need to be told by an electronic device what your quickest route will be, when your next service stop will be and which hotel you'll be staying at that night.

Until recently, everyone owned a map. In fact, most people owned maps that were torn in two and were over a decade old. They didn't seem to mind the vintage as it still got them to their destination. Is the PND just novel technology or is it really a replacement of the paper map? Will GPS technology change traditional travel and our concept of spatial awareness? If you take the PND away from a driver, will he be lost?

Published Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Written by Eva Dodsworth

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