Advisor: Why my GPS is bad for my brain

I used to never get lost in San Francisco. I was a safe driver who obeyed traffic rules. Then I got a GPS, and everything changed.

I'm a closet road geek. I love thinking about how cities are built and how roads interconnect. When the new Octavia exit to the 101 opened up, I gawked at the pure genius that was highway construction for a month before I finally shut up about it. When I first moved to Bay area, I rode the pee-stained bus up and down the veins and arteries of San Francisco with a foldable city map and learned the names of all the side streets that crossed 19th Avenue, Geary Boulevard, and Market Street. By the time I got a car two years later, I had a map of the city imprinted in my geography geek brain.

At first, the GPS (I have an old Garmin) was a novelty--a tool for experimentation. It was fun to see how long the thing thought it would take to get from point A to point B. I was just the receiving end of a network of commands relayed through the voice of a nice British lady. But then it became a habit, and weird things started happening to me.

I started to forget how to get places without it. The map in my brain became a distorted blur. And then my driving became more reckless. I invented this game where I tried to beat the estimated arrival time that the GPS gave me. Often, that entailed running yellow lights and exceeding the speed limit. Sometimes, the GPS fell off of its suction cup on the windshield and onto the floor, and I would have to fumble around with my right hand while steering the wheel and shifting gears with my left. The worst was when it couldn't locate an address or a satellite signal. I would drive around in circles bouncing between rage and confusion. Why am I relying on this dumb machine? Why is this machine that is supposed to help me get places screwing with my innate sense of direction?

Ultimately, I think the GPS just made me lazier, stupider, angrier, and a worse driver. I wish I could say I'd rather be without one, but a part of me is dependent on it. I'm a recovering GPS addict who has been clean for several weeks, but it's still sitting in my glove compartment beckoning to be used.

Advisor is a new weekly column about how to juggle technology, relationships, and common sense. Got a story to tell? Email it to mango [at] tokyomango [dot] com.

Published by Lisa Katayama

I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.

Join the Conversation


  1. They’re a blessing & a curse. For a frequent traveler like myself they are invaluable for a dark airport to hotel drive in an unfamiliar city. But I now come away with no basic geographical knowledge of the places I’ve visited.

  2. Maybe there’s an interface fix to this–have a setting where the gps just shows you where you are and your destination–it’s just a scrolling map showing your location within the city–useful, but not distracting.

    Then, if you get lost, or there’s a bizarre intersection that never lets anyone turn left onto or off of it, you flip it over into the more dictatorial mode.

    I don;t know if that’s already on the market–my Garmin will do the just-a-map thing, but I haven’t found a way to quickly flip between these modes without a lot of distraction.

  3. It’s what technology does though. I don’t remember anyone’s phone numbers because my cell does. I don’t have to keep track of friends’ birthdays because Facebook reminds me. Technology makes us lazy and dumb in specific ways so that we can (theoretically) use that brain-space for something else. Doesn’t always work that way.

  4. I am the only person I know who still remembers dozens of important phone numbers easily.

    I’m also the only adult I know without a cell phone.

    I will cheerfully buy a cell phone, as soon as I can find a pay-as-you-go phone with no menus whatsoever. Just number buttons and switchhook, NOTHING else, not even necessarily an LCD (although it will need a way to show signal and battery levels). That will be a truly awesome phone and I would pay more for it than for an iPhone!

  5. I can see that. GPS is like masturbating. Good if you’re away from home, but it can make you lazy.

  6. I actually prefer maps as a way of getting from here to there to any turn-by-turn sort of system, for more or less this precise reason. This makes the iPhone Maps application perfect for me; where so many others have griped endlessly about its lack of turn-by-turn feature, I have yet to feel its lack. I get the benefits of on-the-fly mapping and determining where I am at any given point without the mental-crutch syndrome of turn-by-turn.

  7. This is what technology is supposed to do. All that pain and suffering you used to have to endure to remember phone numbers, learn roads, find a pay phone, send a letter to someone, read an encyclopedia, etc was what technology was supposed to cure. It freed our minds to think more, create more, and work more. It worked for a while while there was an overlap, but now we’re all lazy and stupid without our pipe to the world. It’s even getting to the point where it’s easier for me to do math in Google than in my head. What will happen to the kids who grow up with the ease of a Google search box instead of having to learn and memorize those skills?
    I live in SLC, which has a number and grid system. Pretty much impossible to not find your way somewhere within this maze. But even now instead of working out in my head what roads to take to get someplace the fastest, it’s easier to just throw it into Google Maps on my phone and see the route there for me. Ah the future…

  8. I used to drive without even the advantage of maps. Back in the UK I knew the motorway system well enough to be able to get to any city. Then, on arrival, I’d find a petrol station and ask for directions to where I was going. Unless it was close they’d only get me off in the general direction, but I’d repeat the process until I got to where I was supposed to be working. And I’d never need to ask for directions there again, nor to a few random places I’d discover on the way! Now, if I don’t have my phone (Kaiser running TomTom) I’m afraid to go further than the end of the street and I can’t relate places to each other without reaching for a map. It has ruined me.

    Couldn’t go cold turkey though – I’d never make it back from Fresh and Easy!

  9. This is all well and good for you folks who CAN navigate. The same as the folks who CAN remember phone numbers (I got a cellphone 2 months ago – I have had problems tracking my own phone number for five years, since it changed from my child-hood number) and CAN walk 50 km (instead of driving) without being crippled or eaten by hungry dogs, and CAN run down a mammoth and kill it, instead of being stomped flat.

    The barriers in life are getting smaller and smaller, and that’s thanks to technology.

    Me, I have the native navigational sense of a chicken in a spin-dryer. I was a hazard when I drove withOUT the GPS because I was in a constant state of confusion and/or terror (Depending on how lost I was) and often had to make sudden lane changes as I realized “OH CRAP THERE’S MY EXIT” (or more often, wandering across three lanes of the freeway, getting off AFTER my exit, wandering around some strange neighborhood looking for the onramp, coming back from the wrong direction, missing my exit…)

    You have NO excuse, by the way, for groping for the fallen GPS while driving. That’s not the GPS, that’s you. It can sit happily on the floor until at least a red light, if not you pulling over to retrieve it safely.

    Same, by the way, with you deciding to RACE the GPS. That’s a really bone-headed, teenaged antic.

  10. I’m starting to feel the same way with my GPS. In my defense however, when I use it (and I don’t live in a city) it’s to places that I don’t go very often. And the alternative, very similar to what Jerril experiences is mass confusion and anxiety when I don’t know where I’m going. Cities with many one-way streets are the worst.

  11. What I got from this was:

    My brain seems to be going on the fritz and shutting down, so I will blame my GPS.

    I simply can’t take this seriously as anything other than an indication that the author has failed in their attempt to understand and effectively use GPS technology. It is an aid, not a magic overseer with all the answers and I will feel no pity when you blindly follow its bad directions and drive into a wall or off an under-construction road because you forgot to use your own damn eyes to verify.

  12. I have literally gotten lost in my own house. Granted, I was 7 years old and we just moved into it. But it was not a large house.

    That sense of direction didn’t improve when I learned to drive. My dad will never let me forget the story I told him about driving south on Manatee Avenue, when all avenues run east/west and all streets run north/south in the town where I had always lived. And as another hint, Manatee Avenue runs more or less parallel to the Manatee River. Without Google Maps I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that. I didn’t have Google Maps or GPS in 1989 though.

  13. I can understand this. The way I tend to deal with GPS is to use it a few times to get to a place and then I’ll know the way. Of course, it is terribly tempting to just give yourself over to the device; it’s much easier than asking for directions, just a quick “text me your address” and you can be on your way. I guess for some people this seems like a major loss.

    On the other hand, on a long drive, it can be surprising and crazy and take you places you never expected to be. On my recent drive from central Indiana (home) to Chicago (new home), my GPS thought it would be useful to take me from one highway to another on this insane journey through the cornfields and small communities of Illinois. I ended up driving through this small town that was having a festival in the parking lot of a bank, and the whole of the community was out there. I would’ve just taken the highway straight up, otherwise, and where’s the fun in that?

    Of course, every time my GPS takes me off the beaten path, I’m also sure that it’s probably just the robot overlords finally taking control and having us drive ourselves to the reeducation camps. Which might be more exciting than a cornfield in the midwest, but significantly less pleasant.

  14. I think it depends who you are. I find the GPS a curse – it turns me into a terrible driver, can’t cope with me taking an alternative route and generally annoys the hell out of me, but that’s because I’m a map person who looks routes up ahead of time and remembers them. Plus I have a good sense of direction.
    On the other hand my partner can’t tell north from south and can’t navigate for toffee. He loves the GPS and it’s made his life ten times easier. I think you have to be prepared to surrender all control to this box on the dashboard, and I don’t think I can ever bring myself to do that…

  15. I get a lot *more* involvement with my environment via my GPS – another old Garmin here. I put it down to using OpenStreetMap, so I’ve got that lovely Wikipedia participation hook. “How does that connect?” “Hey! An alley not on the map!” and so on.

    It’s become a bit of an addiction, but I’ve found some wonderful link-ups and secret spots by chasing off to fill in the gaps.

  16. I’ve found that GPS gives me a much better sense of geography than what I had previously, which amounted to programatically learning “To reach destination X from location Y, turn left from Main Street onto Crescent Avenue and drive until you see the Dunkin Donuts.” I didn’t really develop a good sense of where X really was in relation to Y or anyplace else, since Crescent Avenue might start out running north-south but develop a long almost imperceptible arc which leaves it running east-west. Or it’s a twisty street that doesn’t afford a good view of the night sky. Sure, you can pull over and study a paper map, but having grown up on the (mostly) orderly numbered grid system of Manhattan, I don’t easily internalize weird organic street layouts. (Oddly, I don’t have the same problem when navigating unfamiliar roads out in the country or wilderness.)

  17. Ok, here’s a fix:
    Get a solid smartphone that has GPS built in. I have a windows mobile one. The good thing about winmo is that there are tons of free tools out there.
    Download a GPS tracker, like Noni GPS plot and of course your navigation software.
    Then whenever you go somewhere new, switch on the GPS tracker. When you get where you need to be, save the track you have gone. Then later at home, retrieve the track files from the phone and load them into Google World.
    It’s fun! You can see where you drove wrong and puts everything in perspective. Next time choose a different route.

    I recently moved to a house near some woods that aren’t in fact mapped in google maps or google world, so I hiked through them with my GPS tracker on and created a map for myself in Google maps.

  18. I’ve only borrowed a GPS every now and then, and while it can be helpful for driving in a city I’ve never been to before, I’ve decided never to get one of my own – I feel constantly distracted by it, I drive like a moron when it’s switched on and giving me directions… I usually end up switching it off and drive on intuition instead, or stop to ask for directions, to avoid throwing a borrowed gadget out the window.

    And the cell phone, too. Dumbed me down totally when I first got one. I still remember every phone number from before I got the mobile, too bad only 2 of them are still in use. I guess these helpful gadgets are OK for some, great for others, but some of us just don’t work well with them…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *