KENT COVINGTON, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 11th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Kent Covington.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Janie B. Cheaney now on losing context as we find our way.
JANIE CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: A few days after my daughter’s wedding, I took my son to the airport in her car. He had to catch a plane out of Baltimore, and I would be driving back to central Pennsylvania with my granddaughter.
On the way to the airport I realized my daughter kept no maps in her car and I didn’t remember exactly how to get back to her house. No problem: my son whipped out his smartphone and painstakingly wrote down every step of the Google directions.
I remarked that it seemed more complicated than it should be. “Google always seems that way,” he said.
After dropping him off, I wended my way out of the spaghetti-bowl of freeway interchanges, following the route he wrote down for me. My six-year-old granddaughter piped up from the back seat with one request: she wanted to stop at a Sheetz convenience store and order a snack on their electronic board. I promised her a midway stop during a drive that should last no more than two hours.
But after making a few more turns I realized we were in the country. Had Google thoughtfully routed me around the metro areas to save my blood pressure? Or had I made a wrong turn somewhere? I could have stopped at a convenience store and asked, but there weren’t any. At least, not for very long stretches of road while looping around hairpin curves, coasting down hills, and barreling anxiously through the bucolic countryside.
The roads I was on turned out to be correct, but it took a good three hours to get home, without encountering a single Sheetz, and what bothered me the most was that I had. No. Map.
I understand they’re a relic of the past—who needs ‘em when you’ve got GPS to direct your every move? or you can just punch an address into your phone and the smug presence within will call out every turn well in advance?
Of course, smartphone users can zoom out whenever they want a bigger picture, but “big picture,” on a 3-inch screen is a bit of an oxymoron. The clumsiness of a folding map has been gist for a dozen comedy routines, but if you’re prudent enough to pull to the side of the road, spread it out and peruse at your leisure, a map is a marvel of precision. You get it all: the subtle county boundaries, the squiggly roads and ruler-straight highways, the towns and cities named in varying font-sizes that should give a pretty good idea of where all the Sheetz stores are in a word, the BIG PICTURE.
Are we missing that? Do we spend so much time focused on tiny screens that our thinking is more about getting from point to point rather than seeing the overall route? There does seem to be a lot of short-term thinking out there—a common human failing to be sure. But how did we decide we could get along without a map?
For WORLD Radio, I’m Janie B. Cheaney.