I hate not knowing where I am and where I am going. While I am not averse to using GPS navigation to find my way around, I admit to not liking being entirely dependent on it. Just following step-by-step instructions from a disembodied voice leave me feeling uneasy because I like to know the big picture. Hence I also take with me old-fashioned road maps and before any trip, look up the general route that I will be taking and commit it to memory.
Jennifer M. Bernstein writes that using GPS makes us worse at navigating because when following the directions, we tend to not notice any landmarks along the way that could give us bearings and enable us to return home if for some reason the GPS were no longer available.
In a landmark 1975 paper, psychologists Alexander Siegel and Sheldon White argued that people navigate via their knowledge of landmarks against a larger landscape. New navigational routes are discovered via the linking of familiar landmarks with new ones.
Research has established that mobile navigational devices, such the GPS embedded in one’s smartphone, make us less proficient wayfinders. Mobile interfaces leave users less spatially oriented than either physical movement or static maps. Handheld navigational devices have been linked to lower spatial cognition, poorer wayfinding skills and reduced environmental awareness.
People are less likely to remember a route when they use guided navigation. Without their device, regular GPS users take longer to negotiate a route, travel more slowly and make larger navigational errors.
While research shows that use of handheld navigational devices can lead to lower spatial knowledge, that may not necessarily be the device’s fault. Those most likely to use guided route navigation are already the least confident in their own navigational capabilities; further use of navigational devices leads to a negative feedback cycle, where people become more reliant on their devices and less spatially aware.
She points out that these navigational devices are a great boon to those who are sight-impaired and those with poor spatial orienting skills.
I became curious about how GPS and navigation in general works in Japan (a country I have never visited) where there is apparently a lack of street names and numbers. This article explains the Japanese addressing system. To use GPS, you can enter in the phone number of your destination (presumably a landline), or failing that a map code, or failing that a zip code, or failing that the GPS coordinates.