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returning to mapless geolocation | 20110819


unlike most of the current generation of kids, i grew up learning to read paper maps. i can use a manual compass. i can even identify some crucial stellar constellations, determine cardinal direction based on shadows and the time of day, and i recognize that smoke usually indicates fire. however, i discovered several years ago that in an unfamiliar environment, and especially while driving, a hand-held GPS unit lethargically dictating my proposed future can be among many things, a life-saver, a stress-reducer, a head-ache reliever, and a passenger-cum-navigator relationship soother.

driving into an unknown city with a GPS doesn’t always guarantee you’ll get there without breaking a sweat, but it can help dig you out of the inevitable miss-the-turn (while the system updates and lags, while the conversation ratchets, etc.) by offering a quick view of neighboring streets and their directions. it’s also nice to know that someone, or something else is “recalculating” right alongside you. there’s no judgement—just a let’s-get-the-job-done attitude that never ceases until you’re there, or are found and personally guided-in by the SAR squad.

when we moved back to the West coast after our years in the east, we got a GPS to help us sort through the new territory. to us, Oregon was one giant forrest, even if that forrest was actually a soulless poured-concrete strip mall—we were certain a pack of wolves was not far off, waiting to devour us and our obvious out-of-state license plates. but our GPS kept us on the beaten path. it soothed the landscape through its miniature screen of bland pastel pixel abstraction. no buildings loomed, no landmarks existed. even green spaces or rivers—both represented on the GPS screen—were so abstracted that actually driving past them made little difference.

the GPS was our assurance that, just like the screen suggests, the world revolved around us. this was exactly the morale booster we needed in the unfamiliar surroundings. our avatar bounced happily along, unwavering, simply pivoting on its ego axis. the landscape repixeled beneath it, as though we hovered over the earth, angel-like, never touching ground until we arrived at our appointment, our destiny.

then a funny thing happened. one day i got a smart phone with a data plan, and suddenly the all-in-one GPS was replaced with the realtime, the dynamic interpersonal device of our times. the plodding anti-reality map was replaced with the 1:1 infinite datalayer. every place, every spot, every point on that spot had some kind data story associated with it. in some places a restaurant and its endless reviews, in others push advertisements, a check-in update, a web photo in different weather, all parallel ontologies.

but because this is Oregon, there is a twist—there’s forrest. to be more exact, there are hills, mountains, valleys, cliffs, all with many trees. it’s quite beautiful, but it’s also the end of mobile phone data streaming. so just like that, i’m back to looking at a map in advance of my trips, consulting a paper map during the many moments of mid-trip doubt, and looking at the landscape once i am in the vicinity of my destination—looking for the landmark, the sign, the barely visible street marking or sun-faded billboard.

most importantly—just looking.

maybe you’d think it’s strange that technology set me free in what seems like a rather unlikely way. or maybe not. i get the feeling that this is a temporary lull in the pervasive stream, an eddy, if you will. just the same, that small spinning about did something good for my brain. it did something good for conversation with my co-pilot. it added some element of surprise and fun for my backseat passengers, who, while endlessly inquiring “are we there yet,” are nonetheless pleased that no one knows when that question will begin to end.

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