Guest Column
To really find my way home, I quit using GPS in the car | Column
In the old analog days of actual road maps, we played an active role in finding our way.
Early explorers didn't have GPS. They used an astrolabe  to determine latitude.
Early explorers didn't have GPS. They used an astrolabe to determine latitude.
Published July 28, 2022

It is a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and I am lurching along a major thoroughfare here in Durham, North Carolina, where I live, searching for a shopping center. I slow down, speed up, slow down. Cars whoosh by.

My phone’s GPS has guided me to this place several times. Today, though, I’ve ditched my digital tether, as I try to find it myself. I scan left, and I don’t see it. I scan right. No luck.

I am lost. And I couldn’t be more pleased.

Stephen Buckley
Stephen Buckley [ Provided ]

After living overseas for about seven years, my wife and I moved back to the States last summer. We lived in Nairobi, Kenya, and we drove everywhere. We zigzagged across the city to see friends, to eat, to shop. And because it’s a sprawling place festooned with ubiquitous road work and unpredictable tendrils, we often thought it best, both for efficiency and safety, to use GPS.

When we moved to Durham, I relied on it as I learned my new city and travelled to new places. Yet I found myself needing GPS even after a couple of trips to the same place. This didn’t bother me much at first, as my awful sense of direction is legendary. (Years ago, shortly after meeting the woman who would become my wife, we drove to a park just outside Washington, D.C., where we both lived then. She was behind the wheel, and I navigated. The trip should have taken us 45 minutes. It took three hours.)

Problem was, I was still leaning on my GPS months after we’d arrived. I would plug in an address I had already been to a half dozen times. And I thought nothing of it.

I did not know that last year Scientific American published a piece about how GPS saps our memory. In the old days, paper maps forced us to prepare, to analyze routes, the article said. And once the trip started, we remained alert to make sure we were headed in the right direction. We played an active role in finding our way.

Now, the magazine reported, GPS leads us through every turn until our destination. We don’t even have to be paying particularly close attention. Out of one ear, we hear that authoritative, reassuring voice tug us toward where we’re going. And we obey.

A decade ago, Scientific American also reported that research found that London cabbies — who famously shun GPS — lapped their peers in spatial awareness and long-term memory. That’s because they had memorized the city’s maze of 25,000 streets. Over time, they saw dramatic growth of their brain’s hippocampus, which nurtures long-term memory and spatial navigation. The message: the cabbies’ habits bolstered their brains.

I was sure my GPS was having the opposite effect. I’m 55, so, yes, I worry about my memory. It’s hard not to when sometimes even long-term memories feel slippery. These lapses aren’t unusual for someone my age, but it’s hard not to fret when sometimes I can’t recall what I ate for lunch yesterday. (For the record: spicy cold noodles from my favorite Chinese restaurant.)

Beyond that, I worry that my GPS is stealing my independence. It ruins the pleasure of driving. Instead of fueling me with a sense of relaxed competence, it leaves me feeling shackled. Driving with it as my constant companion feels like work. It feels like the opposite of freedom.

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My GPS is supposed to make me feel safer, more in control, and on some level that’s true. But on a deeper level, I feel like I’ve lost control. And I want it back.

So I have surrendered to uncertainty. Which is why I was so giddy to be wandering along the Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, looking for a Target that should have taken 10 minutes to find.

After maybe 15 minutes, I knew I’d gone past it. I felt panicky, and more than a little embarrassed. Then I settled into the moment. This is exactly what I wanted, I thought to myself: the odd but exquisite sensation of regaining control by giving it up.

I turned around. And five minutes later — voila! — I pulled into the shopping center.

The next week, I drove downtown, an area that flummoxes me with its one-way streets and diagonal directions. It feels busier and more claustrophobic than other parts of the city. For me, it’s relatively easy to get in, but hard to get out.

So on another clear, warm afternoon, after I’d devoured chicken and waffles with a colleague, I started back to my house. I had partially memorized the path. Left on Foster. Another left onto Corporation Street. Then what? I wasn’t sure.

I did what I learned to do years ago, pre-GPS: I just kept driving. Along the sun-dappled, tree-crowded streets I went, on the lookout for the familiar. And a couple of minutes later, I came upon Trinity Avenue, a few minutes from the university where I teach. I sighed with relief.

I haven’t given up my GPS entirely. I still use it when I go somewhere for the first time, but after that, I try to find the spot without it. I probably get lost once a week now. It’s a little scary, but the quiet joy that comes at the end of a trip is always worth it. Even if it sometimes takes me a little longer to find my way home.

Stephen Buckley is the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University.