You Are On the Fastest Route to Uselessness
I once spent 5 months in Europe. In some cities I spent weeks, even months exploring. I had an apartment, a neighborhood, regular stomping grounds, and even a few new friendships. These places feel more like a past home than just a vacation spot. But even the cities in which I spent only 72 hours feel more like a former home than a stop-over destination. I remember the structure, the atmosphere, even the names of several restaurants, parks, and scenic streets. Even today, I could navigate these cities despite only spending a few days there. More than just remembering their layout, I feel that I know these places.
There are many reasons for my vivid memories. When traveling, especially long-term solo travel, your mind is oriented toward new experiences, primed to absorb, connect, and remember. But one specific habit accounts for this depth of experience more than anything else. I walked. Everywhere.
Walking helps us to truly see the sights. Part of this is obvious: the slower pace allows more time to take in our surroundings. But more than that, walking is a physical investment in your movement through space. Whether you are consciously aware or not, your body has a sense that you are moving through the world. With this subconscious switch flipped, your senses activate to perceive. Contrast this with the experience of driving a car. Perception of your surroundings ranks somewhere between casual notice and complete indifference. You do not experience the smells, sounds, temperature, or any of the other factors that bombard your senses while you walk. To walk is to engage completely with the world.
Does Anyone Actually “Drive” Anymore
To exacerbate the disconnect of driving, we’ve now outsourced our navigation to a network of satellites and artificial intelligence that can monitor and dictate our driving behavior better than we ever could. Although no one entity is watching or controlling all the vehicles under guidance at any one time, zooming out to a global scale provides a chilling scene. Millions of drivers follow their prescribed routes without deviation, all with little awareness of where they are or where they’re steering. This looks a lot like a giant video game. Like the map views of Warcraft or SimCity with their armies of little people following your overhead guidance, moving in packs toward specific objectives, shifting their course only when you alter it from above. But, of course, you are not the controller here. We move under the direction of a single app, owned and controlled by a single company that, for all its innovations, only makes money as the world’s largest advertising agency. The magnitude of this lost autonomy becomes even more prescient when we zoom in from earth view to street view.
I begin my drive the same way that I now begin every trip, not by checking the oil or buckling up. No, first I need to map my route. I search for my desired destination. My guide always knows where everything is and she even gives me a few options with estimated drive times, although “estimated” feels a bit too humble. My all-knowing guide never seems to get an ETA wrong. Why so modest?
I select the fastest option, as always. Does anyone ever choose otherwise? Does my guide just want me to feel like I still have some human agency here? Having chosen my route, I hit the road. Every turn is mapped out far in advance of when I’ll need to make it. She alerts me, firmly yet graciously, of my next turn a quarter-mile out, 500 feet out, during my final approach, and as I begin to execute. I’m told which lane to be in and if I can expect any delays. If I make a wrong turn, my overprotective mother steps right in to show me which block to circle or which intersection offers the best U-turn. She corrects all mistakes efficiently. When I’m finally back on track, she insists rather immodestly, “You are on the fastest route.”
To be fair, I can turn off the navigation at any time. Furthermore, if a map and navigation system is to exist, which I believe it should, our current options meet their objectives incredibly well, with the obvious (and rare) exception of the people who followed their navigation systems off a cliff.
I’ve also used GPS in dozens of countries for everything from locating historic landmarks to decoding confusing public transit systems in an unfamiliar language. My international travels would have been completely different without it. But I also came to resent how easy it made travel around completely foreign cities. My main intention for travel is to experience the unfamiliar. With turn-by-turn guidance. my grand adventure felt more like a scripted museum tour. Could I consider this true exploration if I never make a wrong turn or end up in an unexpected area?
I had no cellular data service abroad so the GPS app only showed my little blue dot on the map. I could use the navigation feature with a wifi connection otherwise, I simply had a digital map and the convenience of always knowing my exact location on it. I soon began to relish the opportunity to find my way and plot circuitous routes to things that I wanted to see. Once accustomed to no turn-by-turn navigation, I took it a step further. I began to leave my phone behind to explore with only a paper map and no set agenda or prior knowledge of the city. I would step out the front door, take in the view, and begin walking in the direction that intrigued me most. I wandered, lingered, looked, read, listened, ate, and smelled. I had no camera or any other digital tools. My map remained only a backup. I followed only my curiosity. At the end of a long day of walking, I would pull out the map, study it and my surroundings to figure out where I ended up. From there I plotted a route home, sometimes including a few “must-see” sights that I inevitably missed.
This isn’t the most efficient way to see a city. I missed dozens of “absolutely-must-see” landmarks and historical sites. But my favorite memories are of the things that I simply happened upon—streets, neighborhoods, restaurants, and parks that are not on anyone’s list of important attractions. I had a completely unique experience, one that I can genuinely call an adventure. Digital maps and GPS navigation aided in my travel, particularly in transit from one city to another, but they were not a part of my daily experience. My vivid memories and my sense of truly knowing these places derive from how I chose to see them. My entire being, from my feet and legs, to my eyes and ears, to the deepest aspects of my imagination and curiosity, was engaged in the experience.
Racing Through the Blur
I just moved to a new city. Since the move, I’ve committed to a new habit that, in the modern world, seems unthinkable. I decline the guidance from my map app as often as possible. At first, this meant using it to map my route, then closing the app, and driving from memory. Next, I began to simply look at the dot on the map and plot a course for myself from the main streets and highways that I’ve learned. Now that I’ve lived here long enough to warrant return trips to many places, I leave my phone in my bag for the entire process of route finding, driving, and correcting the inevitable wrong turn or forgotten one-way street. Without guidance or certainty that I’m on the right course, I have to pay keen attention to just about everything along my trip. The experience is still more disconnected than my international walking tours, but I get a much better sense of the world and my passage through it. I am more aware of north, south, east, and west. I’m more aware of the people and places that fill the blocks that I’m passing. I notice interesting parks or shops that I want to revisit. This is far more than learning my way around a new city. I’m also learning where I might want to go next.
Ordinarily, I bike everywhere. This has not changed since moving to Boise. My only experience of driving here without GPS is with my partner Marika during our explorations of the surrounding foothills and as we go about the surprisingly daunting task of furnishing our new home. My time on a bike and the year that I spent walking through dozens of countries now come into stark contrast as I find myself requiring more direction than I have in years. Boise is large and complex enough that I needed a little all-seeing help at first. However, I soon noticed how much time I had begun to spend mindlessly following the blue line, barely noticing the vibrance all around me.
Following GPS navigation now feels somewhat like playing a racing video game. Businesses, signs, neighborhoods, parks, forests, the Vegas Strip, and outer space fly past outside my windows, yet I hardly notice the details or consider deviating from my course to actually interact with them. Everything blurs into scenery on the sidelines of my race to the destination. To further gamify my drive, the app shows my current speed and a countdown of my remaining time. We get where we’re going with the utmost efficiency, but learn almost nothing, nor do I remember the route well enough to replicate it. I have little experience of anything between A and B. These drives do nothing to add to my sense that I truly know my new home. I might physically control the car, but without conscious navigation, I can hardly be said to be “driving.”
If You Don’t Use It You Lose It
I took a GPS hiatus for three reasons. First, it’s simply functional. I want to be able to get in and go without the need for directions around my new hometown. But I also want to flex two very human qualities. I want to maintain my ability to orient myself and navigate my environment. Ancient mariners circumnavigated the earth with only their knowledge of the stars and a few rudimentary (albeit ingenious) tools. Today, we follow our phones to Whole Foods only 12 blocks away and then map our route back home again. My final motivation is more emotional than practical—I want to maintain the sense of discovery that I cherish from my solo world travel. When following a GPS, we only pay attention to the road, not the things that line the route or the things that fill the city blocks. Roads are important for transit, yet they are the space between the elements that actually matter. Who cares if you can navigate a place (GPS guided or not) if you aren’t familiar with the things that comprise the meat of a city?
Like walking, navigating for yourself forces you to tap into a much more instinctual method of orienting yourself. As a child, you naturally intuited the way that all early humans traveled. Walking, biking, and (to a lesser degree) driving without GPS require us to give careful attention to landmarks and absorb as much information as our senses can take in. We look more carefully, learn constantly, and enjoy our trip much more. We might not get there as quickly, but it somehow feels faster. We don’t perceive time in seconds, minutes, and hours. These measurements are only how we now quantify time, they come millennia after human evolution to perceive time. A trip across town is a chore when your entire experience of it is only duration and distance. Yet, that same trip can be a fun adventure and a rich experience if you allow it to be. This brings up a fundamental question of time: quality versus quantity.
Our technological advancements all claim to save us time by improving the efficiency of old tasks. This supposedly allows us to spend that extra time on more meaningful pursuits. However, we never question the validity of this trade-off. Most never even consider it to be a trade-off at all. Expediting our old ways has clear benefits. I’m certainly glad that most of us don’t have to toil to grow all of our own food anymore. The efficiency in agriculture allows us to specialize our minds into the arts, the sciences, hobbies, sports, and leisure (and writing articles about it all). But what was lost in this trade-off? Producing your own food is incredibly rewarding and far healthier than prepackaged food and most restaurant food. The global industrial food system is extremely wasteful at every level. Efficiency in agriculture gives us back time and energy not spent on food production, but it also prevents a deep relationship with our food and the intrinsic rewards that come from the fruits of our labor. We pay an emotional cost for this convenience, even if we aren’t aware. There’s no such thing as an easy lunch.
Second, the efficiency trade-off is only valid if you use all that extra time for fulfilling, life-affirming, or meaningful experiences. This is a dubious proposition at best and appears to be a complete farce for the millions who now spend several hours a day on streaming video and infinite scroll. The benefits of our technological age, unquestioned progress in the eyes of most, looks to me less like a steady rise than the trading of one type of benefit for another. In the case of agriculture from above, we’ve obviously gained back human time and energy. We’ve removed a physical toil that used to bring emotional fulfillment. The new online ways to spend this time have very little physical hardship but bring an immense emotional cost.
Back to the Old Ways
The motivation for this recent experiment is, in part, my simple preference for analog processes. I did handwrite all these words after all before transcribing them on a computer, as I’ve done with every piece that I have published. My preference for “old-fashioned” things goes deeper than my weirdo, old-soul, hipster tendency though. Analog options provide a human experience and human reward that their digital replacements cannot. When I navigate to a new place on my own, I feel a sense of accomplishment—a small reminder of my competence—and I learn something new along the way. Both are deeply rewarding. When I follow a GPS, I hardly do anything. I haven’t used or expanded my abilities. I’ve learned very little.
As we move into an age of more efficient and more ubiquitous digital tools, we are giving away many of our everyday human experiences. These lost experiences are far more than old-fashioned pieces of nostalgia that can add a little spice to your life. These older methods force conscious engagement with the task at hand. Life happens when we are paying attention.
Consider the profound difference between cooking for yourself and ordering from Uber Eats, between face-to-face conversation and texting, and between navigating for yourself and GPS guidance. All of these analog options give you a sense of agency and competence. They give you the opportunity to learn and fail. And they provide a deeply rewarding sense of accomplishment and connection. Their digital counterparts offer no rewards along the way. Digital tools might help you meet your final objective to fill your tummy or arrive on time more efficiently than any analog option, but they make you a mere passenger rather than the master of your journey. Our new tools are amazing, with obvious benefits. My car and GPS navigation were invaluable in finding a mattress store and hauling the new mattress 10 miles back home. Yet, I can’t help but wonder how much of the depression and anxiety that characterize modernity could be solved by a simple return to an older way of living.
Using digital tools is like filling up on empty calories—you might feel full but you haven’t consumed any real nourishment. GPS is a perfectly acceptable way to navigate, but you have very little human experience to show for this choice. Consider the above examples of cooking, chatting face-to-face, and navigating with your instincts and memory. Each provides a sense of connection and accomplishment—little emotional and hormonal hits of the feel-good stuff. Stacked together in a day, these subtle choices can have a profound effect on your mood and fulfillment. Imagine the difference of emotional experience over the next few weeks or months if you were to solidify these changes into habit.
This is the greatest distinction between the digital and pre-digital ages. Life was more physically demanding and far less efficient, yet a standard day awarded a person countless little emotional rewards. The further we move from being necessary, the more depressed and anxious we grow. In Walden, Thoreau noted a similar decline in human thriving from employing a specialist rather than always providing for yourself. We’ve continued this trend toward uselessness further than was ever imaginable in 1854.
“Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas, we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests that other birds have built...Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?... Where is this division of labor to end? And what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me, but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of thinking for myself.”
Technology brings incredible enhancement to the human condition, but we cannot remain naive to its costs. We haven’t simply shrugged the bonds of a bygone era, reclaiming our humanity from the toil of survival. We’ve given the time-consuming yet emotionally rewarding burden of our existence to our digital tools. Without the need to carry our own weight and provide for our own well-being, we don’t know who we are anymore. Depression might be a completely natural response to the subconscious knowledge that you are not capable of providing for yourself. Our widespread mental health issues look to me like a generation who is keenly but unconsciously aware that they are somehow lesser than their potential and lesser than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
My digital tools my life in incalculable ways, not least of which is the virtual connection that we are sharing as you read this. But let’s keep them as tools, using them only to enhance our human abilities rather than replace them. Flex your humanity as I’ve had to flex my hand to produce this. I sign off with a sore hand and a stack of full pages to reflect on. It feels good. I encourage you to make a similar physical investment in something today. Go have a human experience.