The new terra incognita

Photo by the author
Share this article

GPS navigation has led Matt Borne to a library abandoned to moths and mice. So he’s decided to finally switch off his satnav.

I was driving to the Eden Project last week for a work thing. I’d been asked to go to the service gate, an entrance I’d used many times over the years, but not for about a decade. So I’d got in my car and had a quick think about the route, picturing it in my mind’s eye as a collage of map and images.

I skimmed over the section that I drive repeatedly, along the A390, then tried to pull up a detailed map of the less well-known bit, where I had to leave the main road and take the lane that leads, eventually, to the service gate. But all I could see was an image of a lane leaving the main road and winding uphill through high hedges into nothingness, like the empty white space around the edge of an ancient chart.

There was a time when this wouldn’t have happened. If I ‘d been to a place once, it was stored away, ready for future use. Even if the passage of time had erased some of the finer detail, I could still rely on my sense of direction, and a few images, to get me the last couple of miles. And more than that, there was a sense of where a place belonged in my mental map of this island.

But the arrival of satnav has changed that. It’s switched off the bit of my brain that knows where I am, the bit that holds the huge map of the parts of this island that I have already been to, and how they relate to each other. The bit that intuitively knows where north is, and gives me my sense of direction.

I’ve nothing against satnav itself. It’s a wondrous technology, bouncing signals off orbiting satellites to tell you where you are on the face of the planet. My problem is that I – we – have come to rely on it, and in so doing we have lost a very basic and primal capability.

This is part of a bigger trend that has been going on for many decades. When I was a child, my parents and teachers bemoaned the growing reliance on calculators because it undermined the ability to do mental arithmetic. I am sure slide-rules (look it up, kids) were once cursed by traditionalists for the same reason. Many drivers now use parking sensors, another brilliant piece of technology, but one that creates over-reliance and erodes our innate ability to judge distance.

If the satnav in your car stops working it’s not a disaster: just stop and ask for directions. But I ‘ve spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains and hills of Britain, and have witnessed the impact of over-reliance on GPS navigation at first hand: people lost and confused, stumbling around in the fog or rain with no idea of where they are.

The one most firmly engraved in my memory is a lost fell runner. I was in the Lake District with two of my sons. We’d just climbed up out of the relative calm of a ravine into a blizzard of horizontal snow. I knew there was a shelter a couple of hundred metres ahead, so I took a compass bearing off my map and five minutes later we were hunkered down behind its high walls, eating our sandwiches and discussing the best route down into Borrowdale.

A fell runner jogged past without seeing us. He stopped 10 metres away, just on the edge of our vision, stared down at his handheld GPS for some time, then turned around to look back at the way he’d come, and saw us. He trotted over and said, “Do you know where we are?” He saw me glance at his GPS and said: “It’s stopped working. I think it got too wet.”

So for reasons of safety I’ve never used satnav in the mountains. I do it the old-fashioned way, with map and compass. The map is always in my hand and I refer to it every few minutes to make sure I know where I am, all the time, to within a couple of hundred metres. If I do get lost, I retrace my steps and try another route.

GPS removes the need to make your own map, so you never really know where you are. But it does something else too. Maps, physical and mental, are stories. I scribble notes on mine: possible routes, actual routes, where people live, what happened where, and when. And the maps we keep in our minds are stories made up of images, events, people, roads and paths, mountains and towns. GPS robs us of these stories.

I’ve fallen for satnav when driving, and the price has been high. The knowledge that I built up over many years of exploration now has gaps and blank spaces. As if in a library left to the moths and mice, I go to pull out a volume on (say) Pinchbeck and Spalding, and the pages fall away into dust. Swathes of the land have become terra incognita.

I used to be able to picture a whole journey – every road and junction, every town and hill. From Falmouth to Fitzrovia or Achnamara, I knew exactly where I was in the land. Now I often feel adrift in a virtual version of Britain.

The irony is acute: a piece of advanced technology that can pinpoint my position to within 10 metres has left me feeling lost. And that’s why I’m switching off the satnav in my car forever.

Share this article