Friday, May 19, 2006

On maps...

There's an interesting piece about the drawbacks of GPS and the benefits of the traditional map in the Times. it's worth reading in its entirity, but here are some snippets:
HAVE A FRIEND who has fallen in love with the satellite navigation system in his car. His sat-nav has a female American voice. My friend thinks she may be from the Midwest. He calls her Charlene. He likes the way she tells him what to do, coaxingly, but with complete conviction. Sometimes he deliberately takes a wrong turning, just to make her cross. Charlene is lovely when she’s angry, he says. But then, when he gets to where he is going and she purrs “You have reached your destination”, he feels fulfilled. He loves Charlene.
I hate Charlene. I hate her smug topographical omniscience. She never admits she is wrong (a characteristic not confined to mechanical passenger-seat navigators), even though she frequently is: as demonstrated last week by the ambulance that took twice as long as necessary to get a child to hospital because the driver insisted on slavish obedience to his sat-nav. Frequently, Charlene is entirely misleading: dozens of motorists recently followed their navigation systems into a ford in the village of Luckington, ignoring the warning road signs. And she is no help in a crisis. If you drive on to a car ferry, Charlene assumes you have toppled into the drink, but instead of screaming “Oh God you idiot why didn’t you listen to me we are all going to drown”, she just falls sulkily silent.
But above all, I resent Charlene because she and her like are gradually killing off maps, the charts that have revealed the changing contours of our world and minds since the birth of culture. English mapmakers once placed the phrase Hic sunt dracones, “Here be dragons”, on maps to mark the edges of the known world. Charlene has slain what few dragons remained. With a GPS embedded in dashboard, wristwatch or mobile telephone, we will never be lost again.
The paper map will soon die, and with it something central to human experience. There is a joy is not knowing exactly where you are. The electronic gizmo takes you from A to Z, but it does not show you the place you never knew about, off at the side of the map, the road less travelled. The joy of exploration lies in not knowing exactly where you are, or where you are going, in trying to match the visual world outside with the one-dimensional world represented by the map. Wherever you go now, the machine has got there first.

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