When I was growing up, riding in the passenger seat meant it was my job as co-pilot to navigate. My small hands would root around in the glove box to find the appropriate map and unfold it without obscuring the windshield. I can remember tracing my finger through the intricate web of streets, rivers and highways, taking pride in finding our small place in the relative enormity of the world.
The process has changed since then. Like most people, I use a smartphone and mapping apps for reference. It's fast, easy, accurate and practical. But we lose our sense of the grandeur of geography as we increasingly leave our paper maps at home. While mapping applications are great for getting from point A to point B, they shape our outlook, and maybe even shrink our world.
Worried about my worldview and feeling lost, I called a cartographer. Darin Jensen teaches at UC Berkeley. When I described my concern, he knew exactly what I was talking about. He told me: "The map app makes the world smaller because [people] lose the geographic context of being in a big place. They're only seeing themselves in the center of their smartphone screen."
When I'm looking at an app on the phone, the map is following me. So instead of moving through the world, the world is moving and I'm staying still. "It's almost like you never get anywhere," Darin said "since you're always right there."
In certain other cultures, individuals orient themselves based on unchanging directions. They would turn south, or grab the book to the east – always aware of their body's orientation on the planet. We understand direction relative to our current perspective; turning to our right, grabbing the book to our left – placing us in the center, and the world as a mere backdrop. Mapping apps propagate that Western, industrialized worldview on steroids.
While apps are useful for way-finding, I now go out of my way to fish around in the glove compartment every once in a awhile. It's nice to know where the landmass ends and the sea begins. It's nice to feel small here, even though I'm so big on the screen.
With a perspective, I'm Claire Stremple.
Claire Stremple is a printer and aspiring writer living in Oakland.