Transforming Abstract Space into a Place

From “Global Impositioning Systems,” by Alex Hutchinson, The Walrus (November 2009):

Like any other human trait, navigational skill varies widely — some people crow about their abilities, while others lament their ineptitude…

We’re now on the cusp of an even more dramatic change, as we enter the age of the Global Positioning System, which is well on its way to being a standard feature in every car and on every cellphone.

At the same time, neuroscientists are starting to uncover a two-way street: our brains determine how we navigate, but our navigational efforts also shape our brains. The experts are picking up some worrying signs about the changes that will occur as we grow accustomed to the brain-free navigation of the GPS era…

To many, the beauty of the devices is precisely that we no longer have any need to painstakingly assemble those cognitive maps. But Cornell University human-computer interaction researcher Gilly Leshed argues that knowledge of an area means more than just finding your way around.

Navigation underlies the transformation of an abstract “space” to a “place” that has meaning and value to an individual. For the GPS users Leshed and her colleagues observed in an ethnographic study, the virtual world on the screens of their devices seemed to blur and sometimes take over from the real world that whizzed by outside. “Instead of experiencing physical locations, you end up with a more abstract representation of the world,” she says…

[Some researchers fear] that overreliance on GPS…will result in our using the spatial capabilities of the hippocampus less, and that it will in turn get smaller. Other studies have tied atrophy of the hippocampus to increased risk of dementia…

[Millions of people] now pay to join health clubs where they can spin their legs on treadmills and exercise bikes to make up the miles they no longer travel in their daily lives. Many others choose to forsake “efficiency” by biking to work or walking to the supermarket, because they’ve realized that letting technology do too much leaves their bodies worse off. We may soon take the same approach with our brains.

Does My Sense of Direction Suck? from The Walrus Foundation on Vimeo.

See also: Test Your Sense of Direction