Tonight I left the CBD in a cab. The destination was a prominent intersection on a major arterial road. A good driver will simply ask if I want to take the CityWest Link or George Street/Broadway to get out of the city. Late at night there’s not much to choose between them, but it’s manners to ask.
This guy, though, began looking for the intersection on his GPS sat-nav. This did not inspire confidence; I said I’d direct him. Even then, he managed to take a totally illogical wrong turning at one point. I can see why he wanted the sat-nav.
Last year I needed to go from the ABC in Ultimo to Circular Quay – one end of the CBD to the other. No local driver should need to look that up. You’d think.
So I got in, I gave my destination: Circular Quay. The driver began looking up his sat-nav. Under S. I got out.
This is becoming more and more common. Which suggests that testing for taxi drivers is nowhere near as stringent as it used to be. But it’s more alarming than that. Instead of that mental overview of the city and all its major routes, only occasionally needing passenger directions or to consult a map when the address is obscure, taxi driver “knowledge” – such as it is – is being reduced to a bunch of linear directions from one place to another, most of which they apparently have to look up anew each time.
What’s ironic, as I learned from this fascinating New Yorker article from 2006, is that the newfangled sat-nav operates on an incredibly ancient principle.
The writer, Nick Paumgarten, presents the idea that maps developed from being fairly primitive affairs in which “navigation” basically meant following an itinerary, to the sophisticated maps we now have, where navigation means assessing space and making decisions. Here’s the essential bit:
To offer some perspective, [Jim Akerman] retrieved, from a vault within the vault, one of the library’s oldest and most precious maps, a so-called Portolan chart of the Mediterranean, dating to 1456. It showed the sea’s entire coastline, with hundreds of ports labelled in the manner of stations on a railroad map, the names neatly lined up parallel to one another, in the order in which one would encounter them if one were sailing along the coast.
“The tension between these two modes of navigating goes back to these maps,” he said. “The itinerary represents space as one experiences it on the ground. A map like this has that element, but it starts to introduce the notion that you can conceive of it as a larger unit. It’s a God’s-eye view, which puts you in charge of navigating through space. This is the origin of the notion that you can pull yourself away from the world and see it from above.”
The irony is that centuries later, when we have perfected the God’s-eye map and become conversant with it, we have, in the thrall of technology, turned back to the ancient way: the itinerary and the strip map. OnStar and MapQuest zero in on the information that’s relevant to reaching your destination. “They close down your choices and give you a route,” Akerman said.
This, I think, is why I feel so uncomfortable driving with someone who’s relying on the dulcet instructions from their GPS (especially if I’m paying them!). They’ve entrusted their knowledge, their overview and their judgement to something else. Give me a map anyday.