“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography,” said the satirist Ambrose Bierce. In my case, all it took was a soggy smartphone.
Fumbling with my iPhone one-handed one day while precariously balancing an umbrella in the other, the phone leapt from my hand, landing — as they will — face down in a puddle. Later, while my phone dried out in the recommended rehab of rice, I dug out a beautiful leather-bound copy of London A-Z that I had received as a gift when I arrived in London.
The last city I had gotten to know with the help of a paper map was Paris, where I lived in the early aughts, PSE (pre-smartphone era). As Paris is less than a tenth of the size of London, most of the pages of Paris par Arrondissement include a soupçon of a bordering neighborhood on the edge, allowing one to gradually stitch together a mental map of the whole of the city.
We overlay personal maps on top of topography, which is why it can feel like such a betrayal when our landmarks shift. I still grit my teeth at the sight of the Starbucks — the ultimate symbol of gentrification — that took over the East Village corner that housed my first sliver of an apartment in Manhattan. An 86-year-old friend of mine says that her greatest pleasures now are returning to the handful of places that remain unchanged from how she remembers them from when she was young.
Memory sifts and sorts to form a cartographical narrative of our lives, which is why it’s also alarming when Google Maps — in its default settings — remembers the places you’ve been. Defenders of the ‘quantifiable self’ movement argue that we will eventually rely on technology to provide a more accurate picture of ourselves and our true desires. But is a precise record really what we’re after? (I, for one, am grateful that my mental map has the acuity and grace to zap the Nando’s at which I experienced one of my more disastrous first dates.)
Michael Jones, former ‘chief technology advocate’ at Google, said in an Atlantic interview that thanks to Google Maps, “no human ever has to feel lost again.” Convenience can come at the cost of agency, however. Reliance on the app to get me around had become one of many tethers to my smartphone, leaving me disengaged from my surroundings. I’m not alone in my device dependence for navigation, of course. Exiting the tube at Marble Arch for the women’s march, I asked a policeman for directions to the American embassy. More than happy to oblige, he whipped out his own iPhone to plot the nine-minute trajectory. Three-quarters of drivers report ‘often’ seeing pedestrians step into the street while looking down at a device. There is even a name — smombies — for those so fixated on Facebook or Pokémon Go that they become dangerously unaware of their surroundings.
Oncoming traffic is not the only risk factor. An oft-cited study run by University of London neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire demonstrated that the part of the hippocampus responsible for spatial navigation is more developed in the brains of London cabbies, from years of negotiating city streets. But neuroplasticity works both ways. The hippocampus — involved in both memory and navigation — is one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease; indeed, an early symptom of dementia is getting lost. In a case of ‘use it or lose it’, researchers at McGill have found that GPS reliance may actually reduce hippocampus function as we age.
Spatial awareness and memory are intricately linked. Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientists May-Britt and Edvard Moser and John O’Keefe believe that the ‘mental travel’ of memory is governed by the same systems that register physical travel. The oldest known mnemonic strategy, which dates from Roman times and is still used by competitors in memory championships, is called the ‘method of loci’. As explored by Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, the technique involves populating a map of a familiar location with images (the wackier — and ideally the lewder — the better, to capitalize on the brain’s attraction to the prurient). The harder the brain works to create an image, the more the neurons connect to secure the memory, which is also why making an effort to navigate helps us remember the way.
Michael Jones spoke of Google Maps in almost intimate terms: “we are going to make discovering the Earth a joy — like you’re dating a planet and you want to know it, to hear all about its past and hopes.” But, like dating, much is lost when we introduce a screen as a third party. Technology writer Nicholas Carr worries about the potential consequences of extracting the self from a broader sense of place. “We may grimace when we hear people talk of ‘finding themselves,’” he writes in The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us. “But the figure of speech, however vain and shopworn, acknowledges our deeply held sense that who we are is tangled up in where we are.”
Carr also points out that while paper maps require us to figure out where we are within a broader landscape, Google Maps puts us each at the centre of the universe, recalibrating that universe around us. There is a long history of putting God at the middle of maps: Mount Meru for Hindus, Mecca for Muslims, and Jerusalem for Christians. But by putting our individual selves (in the form of a blue dot), at the centre, are we each becoming the god of a universe of our own making? (Query whether such self-focus is desirable in an era in which social media fuels narcissism, which has just shown its ultimate triumph in Donald J. Trump’s ascent to the Oval Office.)
I wish I could say that I kept using the A-Z after my phone came back from the dead. But the heft and girth of the miniature version of what Peter Ackroyd called “infinite London” just took up too much real estate in my handbag. I do, however, try to rely as much as possible on my memory now, and the well-appointed maps outside of tube stations — whose ‘You are Here’ feels quite reassuring in our uncertain times. Not to mention the kindness of strangers to point me in the right direction. Now that I’m paying attention, I am lost less frequently.
Anthropologist Tim Ingold makes a distinction between transport and wayfaring. Transport is goal oriented: getting from point A to point B, ‘a passenger in one’s own body’. Wayfaring, on the other hand, integrates action and perception, an immersion that is not just being in the world, but being alive to it.
It took lifting my gaze from the solipsistic universe between my thumbs to finally be alive to what poet John Davidson called “the heart of London beating warm.”