Who Can Still Read A Map?

I am willing to bet that a fair portion of the millenial generation finds it difficult to read a plain map. Sure, they can look at a navigation screen which continues to re-center and process information to ensure that they will get to their desired destination, but what would happen if a paper map was unfolded in front of them, and they were put to task to find out how to go from point A to point B only by reading the map?

I remember using Thomas Guides, those large spiral bound collections of maps which yielded detailed geography within large metropolitan areas. I always had a Thomas Guide tucked away in my trunk at all times, so that I would be able to reference it in case I found myself in an unfamiliar part of town. However, without some sense of direction, some sense of where my home, or some recognizable geographic reference, was, a Thomas Guide would have just been a jumble of confusing roads. In stark contrast, with GPS navigation apps, all I have to do is select “HOME” on my trusty navigation system and allow it to guide me, without having any clue to where “home” is.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the technology which GPS navigation affords, especially when it can factor in traffic flow and estimate time of arrival. But I think it’s tragic that an unavoidable dumbing down of our society has also occurred as a result of GPS technology. What should be an essential survival skill, namely, reading a map, has been largely lost. I still run into people who don’t have the slightest clue of north, south, east, west, and whose lack of spatial knowledge is being coddled by computer programs which do the thinking for them.

I do think that when it comes to short distances within an area, especially if one is walking from point A to point B versus driving, there is some spatial mapping and learning which occurs. However, longer distances with numerous circuitous navigation paths are best handled with forfeiting complete control to the navigation stream without really processing what turns have been made, etc. One prime example I have is a destination about 50 miles away from me which I must drive to each month, which also happens to be quite tricky to get to, because it is nestled deep in the next county, hidden from major highways. I rarely repeat a route to this destination, thanks to the fact that Waze factors in traffic flow, and puts me on the most complicated navigation paths. Waze wasn’t working on one of those days, and I honestly couldn’t think of how to get to my destination! I ended up plugging the address into my vehicle’s GPS, and was able to get to my destination. I had given in to Waze to show me the way, but hadn’t processed enough on my own to map out my route unassisted.


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