Get Lost! And found.
December 3, 2014 10:20 PM   Subscribe

John Huth's 'The Lost Art of Finding Our Way': An odd and very enjoyable book

Do our brains pay a price for GPS? - 'How a useful technology interferes with our ‘mental mapping’ — and what to do about it'

Losing Our Way in the World
Two months later, I was kayaking in Nantucket Sound on a crisp fall day, this time with a wet suit on, but still without a compass. It was early October, and water temperatures were plummeting. There was a fog bank in the distance. Having learned from my earlier, harrowing experience, I noted the wind and wave directions before departing.

As the fog rolled in, I stayed close to the shore, and anytime the fog obliterated landmarks, I knew how to turn toward land. It was a relaxing, contemplative paddle.

The next day, news broke of a huge search-and-rescue operation for two young women in kayaks who had gotten lost in the fog. The day after that, I learned that the body of one of them had been recovered. The other body was never found. They were paddling at the same time as I was, and within a half-mile of me.

I was haunted by survivor’s guilt. Why were there two such divergent outcomes to the same situation? The only answer was the simple observation of the wind direction before I left the shore.
The History of Wayfinding (And Cognitive Maps)
Why we humans get lost -- and how to avoid it. You could engage in natural navigation by the sun, plants, or in the city.

Satellite Culture: Global Positioning Systems, Inuit Wayfinding, and the Need for a New Account of Technology

For more, try Daniel R. Montello and Colin Ellard.
posted by the man of twists and turns (24 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Knowledge - The examination to become a London cabby is possibly the most difficult test in the world — demanding years of study to memorize the labyrinthine city’s 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them. As GPS and Uber imperil this tradition, is there an argument for learning as an end in itself?
posted by carsonb at 10:35 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


I feel like the inability of recreation kayakers to navigate by nature has less to do with the existence of GPS and more to do with the existence of recreational kayaking.

Of course people who needed to understand ocean currents in order to not get lost while subsistence fishing learned how to do it. And of course people whose navigation challenges generally amount to how to get to the Piggly Wiggly without having to make that awful left off Third Street don't know how to do it. I bet the vikings wrote shitty javascript and always forgot which kinds of plastic go in the recycling.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:38 PM on December 3, 2014 [13 favorites]


As a child, my favorite game was to ride my bike for hours, until I was very far away--we lived near Boston-- until I was thoroughly lost for the fun of finding my way home. I have a phenomenal sense of direction and later I became a city planner en route to my current work. (Coincidence? I think not! ) I love going to new communities (I'm a consultant) and just driving around until I have them all figured out. No GPS for me; it's a mindkiller.

City planners don't trust colleagues who can't navigate. Once, when I lived in DC, I drove a van full of out-of-town planners to dinner. When we left, I took a counter intuitive turn. The chorus of shocked and dismayed "Noooo!!" from the others was immediate. I had to explain the quirky street pattern and my rationale before they settled down. Planners always want the window seat on airplanes.

Then I married another city planner with an equally fine sense of direction; both of us are used to having others defer to us on routing and whereabouts questions, so it took some adjustment. Still, we're different. Mr. Carmicha gives directions using visual cues (once he told me to turn left at a car dealer which he identified by drawing a logo on a napkin... Toyota) whereas I'll know the numbers and names of streets and landmarks. We have a rule where if one of us is feeling really anxious about the route choice we can invoke privilege and overrule the other. We use it sparingly, for it is a significant weapon vis-a-vis what it implies.
posted by carmicha at 11:14 PM on December 3, 2014 [19 favorites]


As the kind of person who owns a sextant, this book is right up my alley. In my years as trudging around on weekends out in the forest, I had occasion to practice my woodcraft. Enough that I feel fairly confident of not becoming entirely lost, at least around here in my home terrain. Having access to new techniques is something I'm looking forward to.

Thanks for posting this, tmotat.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:27 AM on December 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Here in Ireland we mainly navigate using pubs. Straight down Camden Street, turn right at The Bleeding Horse and so on.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:29 AM on December 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


As the kind of person who owns a sextant, this book is right up my alley.

This is one of the more MetaFilter-y things I have read this year.

I love you MetaFilter.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:54 AM on December 4, 2014 [12 favorites]


During my Boston area childhood, where few streets run north-south or east-west, cardinal directions seemed almost theoretical to me. No one used them to orient or provide directions. Instead, directions were given in one of two ways:
a) Do you know how to get to X? Good. OK, proceed like you're going to X but when you get to Y do Z instead;
b) Do you know how to get to X? No? OK, proceed [gives directions until blank look signifying full brain appears] and then ask somebody else what to do from there.

I miss that, even though both versions often included classic instructions like "turn right a block before you get to where Sully's used to be."
posted by carmicha at 4:37 AM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


GPS is the mindkiller

So much this. I have tried it and it sure is easy! My occasional wishing I had GPS, my thoughts of buying one, it tells me that my brain is lessening and my powers are dimming. An animal should know where it is in the world eh?
posted by Meatbomb at 4:46 AM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I try to be aware of one or two landmarks to use when I get lost. But providing these to other people gets me a mystified look about 99% of the time. *shakes head*

For example, in downtown Boston, the two tallest buildings (the Prudential tower and the John Hancock building) indicate a pretty good west/east axis, and you can use that to line up your pocket map and get where you need to go. I always point this out to new visitors, and almost never have I seen it sink in.

Oh, I usually get lost the first time I go to somewhere new, but can usually blunder through. This is frustrating, but I always know where the sun is and which direction I am driving, so I can at least turn around at any point if I am truly hosed.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:50 AM on December 4, 2014


Nicholas Carr's "The Glass Cage," a thoughtful critique of automation uber alles, has a chapter devoted to the potential cognitive consequences of heavy GPS use. It's probably the scariest chapter in the book, even more so than airline pilot deskilling as a result of routine flight automation.

I love navigating new places, always have, and have managed to avoid GPS up till now. Then again, I'm a good map reader - not everyone has that ability. I did let Google show me the way a few weeks ago when I was in an unknown city on a tight time schedule, but I hope I never have to rely on that technology regularly.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:51 AM on December 4, 2014


I like the navigation system in my truck simply because on long trips it keeps a little ticker window open showing the miles and hours until you reach your destination. For actually navigating it isn't so great; google maps on my phone is better. For driving, I spent so many years with paper maps and scribbled directions that I really welcome turn by turn directions from the google voice. It's safe and far less stressful when driving into a city you don't know. But it also skips that step of staring at the map and trying to figure out the best route, which gives at least a sense of how things connect and fit together.

More locally, I have to work with maps and GIS almost daily, and it always surprises me how few people (even hikers and birders who are out in the countryside every week and use topo maps) have any sense of the shape of the county boundary lines or the pattern of the watersheds, for example. I have a really good relational sense of direction (as in, if I am here and facing this way, I'm pretty sure place X is over there) but I get disoriented instantly in indoor malls and big stores that lack any consistent directional clues.

I also think that some people just aren't wired to know where they are in the world. My partner is the smartest person I know and yet has absolutely zero sense of direction or place and is the world's worst navigator, routinely misreading even turn by turn directions being updated by google. Even hunter gather groups would have had a few people who just followed along, perhaps great at flint knapping or storytelling but unable to find the cave after collecting berries.

Still, we're different. Mr. Carmicha gives directions using visual cues (once he told me to turn left at a car dealer which he identified by drawing a logo on a napkin... Toyota) whereas I'll know the numbers and names of streets and landmarks.

Giving directions effectively means figuring out how that person navigates. Do they need cardinal directions (go north on Second Avenue, then...) or do they need landmarks and relational directions (turn towards the big church, then go past the red building under construction...), or even some other way of seeing the world? A lot of times people can't follow the first step when given directions, because they don't know what "turn north out of the parking lot" means, say.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:58 AM on December 4, 2014


GPS saved my marriage. My spouse has many amazing skills, but wayfinding is sadly not one of them. I suspect it might have a Y-related genetic component, as my stepsons and nephews are also useless with directions. They all have just enough ability to understand how much they lack. Our trips with me navigating used to be fraught with tension - I can wayfind competently, and I had the map, but somehow every trip ended in arguments, gritty silence and a deep sigh of relief when we actually got where we were going. And then we got a GPS - her name is Gladys, and, like our answering machine, she has an English accent because - as colonials - it makes us feel posh to have English servants. For some reason, nobody argues with Gladys, even when she directs us down odd byways and strange streets... they trust her tiny electronic brain in the way they don't trust mine. Which is utter rubbish, but at least it ends the routing arguments so I'll take it.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 5:59 AM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Pshaw.

I had no sense of direction before GPS was available, to the extent of forgetting whether streets went north-south and avenues east-west or vice versa in my hometown where I lived for a quarter century and learned to drive.

GPS not only gets me un-lost, it's helped me understand roads' directions and relationships to each other.
posted by Foosnark at 6:14 AM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Get lost! And found. Posted by the man of twists and turns. Eponysterical.
posted by carmicha at 6:20 AM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


I've known that I've had perfect direction sense ever since I was 5 years old, when I led my drunk family back to the hotel room after a night of walking around Rome on our way to political exile. Just because I don't know where I am doesn't stop me from knowing where I'm going. It's just a matter of following one of many available algorithms.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 6:42 AM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


"my thoughts of buying one, it tells me that my brain is lessening and my powers are dimming. An animal should know where it is in the world eh?"

I feel the same way about watches and time, and find it a great mental exercise figuring out from clues in the environment and a mental tally of event just what time it ought to be.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 6:42 AM on December 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


For some people, the prospect of reclaiming that richness is not enticing enough to justify the pain of constantly getting lost.

That's what I say. To hell with that "richness." I'll take not getting lost or stranded, thank you. I think some people forget that getting lost as a woman alone is different than getting lost as a man or a couple. I love my GPS; it makes driving so much easier and more enjoyable for me.

Now I think I'm going to go stand on a few lawns and say "phhbbtt" when told to get off them.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:56 AM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have variable location skills - I'm fine with a map and compass, and out on moorland or the like can generally navigate away from trouble and towards the best local pub. Not so good in built-up areas, especially when there are gently curving roads or complex junctions (me in Amsterdam is always good comedy).

GPS has given me a much richer experience of walking in cities. I can wander off at random as far as I like for as long as I like, then just follow the arrow back to base taking as many detours as I fancy. Recently, since I've lost the ability to read the majority of street signs, it's been even better...
posted by Devonian at 9:03 AM on December 4, 2014


jacquilynne: I bet the vikings wrote shitty javascript and always forgot which kinds of plastic go in the recycling.
Which is why we still have to send in teams of specialized hazmat experts (or "archaeologists", as England quaintly calls them) every time we build on their former settlements.

Fucking filthy Vikings.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:45 AM on December 4, 2014


carmicha: As a child, my favorite game was to ride my bike for hours, until I was very far away--we lived near Boston-- until I was thoroughly lost for the fun of finding my way home. I have a phenomenal sense of direction and later I became a city planner en route to my current work. (Coincidence? I think not! )
OK, suddenly I'm reminded of a dayhike I took with an ex. She was a much more active hiker than I was, so I assumed her skills were greater. Clouds rolled in before dusk, leaving us with no telltale shadows... and our path "back" took us into clearly new territory, instead of our starting point.

She became panicky. That amazed me. I said, "Come on. You've been lost before, hiking."

"No, never!"

Oh... apparently she wasn't the sort of person to just follow a trail into the woods with no map - something I'd done since age 9.

I suggested we walk back until something looked familiar again, and then start forward from that point a second time. She got more upset, so I got insistent... We followed my plan, and were back at the car soon enough.

Getting lost is, IME, a surprisingly positive state for really setting a mental map in place. I'm not saying it's the safest way, always...
posted by IAmBroom at 9:52 AM on December 4, 2014


For example, in downtown Boston, the two tallest buildings (the Prudential tower and the John Hancock building) indicate a pretty good west/east axis, and you can use that to line up your pocket map and get where you need to go. I always point this out to new visitors, and almost never have I seen it sink in.

I never used that in Boston; it would have helped. In Washington you can use the Capitol and the Washington Monument. (Come to think of it, I usually just used the Washington Monument; you can't necessarily see the Capitol from everywhere.)

Oh, I usually get lost the first time I go to somewhere new, but can usually blunder through. This is frustrating, but I always know where the sun is and which direction I am driving, so I can at least turn around at any point if I am truly hosed.

But in Boston that can be disorienting. In my head Mass Ave runs north-south through Cambridge; in reality it runs more east-west anywhere except the MIT campus. As a result, when I lived in Cambridge I was constantly walking what I thought was "north" but directly into the sunset.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:45 AM on December 4, 2014


I must have been born without a sense of direction (my older sister, who has an actively good sense of direction, must have gotten all the familial talent there). GPS changed my life, and it can hardly be making my sense of direction worse (there isn't really much worse for it to get).

Plus it affords me an opportunity to babble about applications of general relativity in daily life, so I will take it, cognitive changes or no.

And lastly-- f'in Boston. Curvy streets. N-way intersections. Freaking straight streets that are mostly but not entirely parallel. Lack of street signs on major streets (because you should know what the major street is, somehow). Yes, I got my first Iphone with GPS the summer I moved to Boston, duh.
posted by nat at 2:59 PM on December 4, 2014


I have a terrible sense of direction, no grasp whatsoever of spatial relationships. GPS is the greatest thing in the world. What's fun to do with GPS, especially when you have a long trip to make and no particular pressure to finish it in some specific amount of time, is to ask the GPS to route you from, say, Milwaukee to New Orleans as a pedestrian. This is like the hardcore version of "avoid highways".

It's not always possible to follow that route by vehicle, but you see a lot more interesting stuff on the way.
posted by Ipsifendus at 3:20 PM on December 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've always thought it was a truism that the best way to learn a city while travelling was to get lost and walk our way back.

There's an old Chinese proverb that sounds something like "Lao maw shur toe": "The old horse knows the way." In the version I heard, soldiers chasing the Huns or somebody in battle suddenly realized they were completely lost in the wilderness. The solution was to unbridle the oldest horse in the battalion and follow it back to safety.
posted by msalt at 11:07 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


« Older The Queen's English   |   Dürer's polyhedron: 5 theories that explain... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments