5 Reasons to Stop Relying on Your Smartphone’s GPS

It’s no secret that many of us are addicted to our smartphones and dependent on our mobile devices to access information and services. Being addicted to your Facebook feed or your favorite mobile game are common problems, and ones that you can probably imagine leading you astray. But are we also too dependent on some of the more useful features of our phones? As Brad Plumer reports for Vox, experts think that you’re probably too reliant on your smartphone’s GPS. Here are five reasons why you should work on becoming a little less dependent on your favorite navigation app.

1. Relying on GPS can ruin your navigational abilities

Becoming too dependent on GPS can ruin your innate navigation skills

Becoming too dependent on GPS can ruin your innate navigation skills | Source: iStock

Satellite expert Roger McKinlay tells Vox that “we’ve become overdependent” on GPS and other satellite navigation devices. McKinlay recently wrote that apps and devices that automatically tell you where to go can erode your natural navigation skills. He argues that “a sense of direction, a sense of scale and a map” are still essential to getting around in the world, and “knowledge of where you want to go also helps.” But as smartphone-owning adults rely on their smartphones to get around unfamiliar territory, they are often left even more helpless when they have to find their own way thanks to a dead smartphone battery or the failure of a navigation app.

McKinlay warns, “our natural navigation abilities will deteriorate as we rely ever more on smart devices.” Navigation is a use-it-or-lose-it skill, and researchers have shown that drivers who follow satellite navigation instructions find it more difficult to figure out where they have been than those who use maps. Drivers who follow navigation directions also fail to notice when they’ve been directed past the same point twice, and rescue teams routinely search for people with drained smartphone batteries, no sense of direction, and no paper maps. When you stop trying to figure out routes for yourself, your ability to orient yourself and figure out how different streets and routes fit together will suffer.

2. GPS doesn’t work as well as you think it does

An Uber driver in Cairo checks a map on his smartphone

Uber driver checks a map on his phone | Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

McKinlay reports that satellite navigation is unreliable because it’s not well equipped to handle indoor environments or highly developed areas. “When your phone tells you where you are in a shopping centre, for example, it will actually be a guess based on ground-based WiFi networks,” McKinlay explains. “That is because signals from satellites are weak (similar to viewing a 20-watt light bulb from almost 20,000 kilometres away), prone to error and easily disrupted.”

As Plumer reports, the Global Positioning System (that’s what GPS stands for) consists of 31 satellites orbiting Earth from 12,550 miles up. These satellites were originally deployed by the Department of Defense to aid with military navigation, but can now be accessed by anyone with a GPS receiver in his or her phone or car. The receiver needs to pick up at least four signals to calculate your position. But signals from the satellites are subject to interference by buildings, other structures, and even devices that intentionally disrupt GPS, and they don’t work well at all indoors. Further, unreliable signals are going to become a much bigger issue if we fill the roads with self-driving cars, which will rely heavily on GPS and will need to work 100% of the time.

3. Over-reliance on GPS can leave you blind to common sense

California Tightens Policy For Hybird Drivers Access To Carpool Lanes

People who rely too much on GPS seem to forget common sense | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

From the story of a truck driver who intended to drive to Gibraltar, off the south coast of Spain, and ended up in Gibraltar Point, England to an anecdote about a driver who ended up with his truck wedged between buildings after following GPS directions, there are plenty of anecdotes to indicate that faithfully following such directions inhibits drivers’ use of common sense.

The problem is that a navigation app is only as smart as the person using it, and an app can’t keep you from getting confused about where you are or where you’re going. Blindly trusting a piece of technology to make decisions for you is something we’re all guilty of, but trusting a navigation app shouldn’t mean that you neglect to determine whether you’re heading in the right direction, or are following a route that seems unsafe or even impassible.

4. Turn-by-turn directions may not offer the best way to get around

snowy road

Following directions from your GPS may not be the best way to get where you’re going | Lance King/Getty Images

McKinlay reports that even as tech companies and app developers design navigation systems that are aware of traffic and other factors when choosing routes, a better option “would be to make it easier for the user to plan their route.” While an app can find the shortest or fastest path through a database of roads, many are less well-equipped than people to consider the time of day, level of traffic, and even personal preference that humans consider when choosing a route.

Additionally, McKinlay argues that people who sit down and figure out a route for themselves think differently about the world than those who rely on their smartphone to figure it out for them. When you’re depending on your phone to give you turn-by-turn directions, you’re paying more attention to the screen and less attention to the world around you. Whether you’re navigating across town or across the country, staring at your phone the entire time will likely cause you to miss out on things along the way.

5. Navigation is still a useful skill

arrows on a road

Navigation is an obsolete skill, as some people imagine | Source: iStock

If you’ve opted to trust a navigation app instead of learning to get around a new city, you’re missing out on the opportunity to practice a skill that too many people have written off as obsolete. As Vox learned last year, active navigation not only helps you connect with the environment you’re traveling through, but also helps strengthen the kind of thinking that’s used in all kinds of spatial processes.

Navigation skills are relevant to more tasks than finding your way, and actively finding your way through your environment can help you discover things like how resources are distributed throughout your city, or the way in which better schools and libraries are in the wealthier parts of a city. Additionally, navigating for yourself may help stave off atrophy in the hippocampus, which is a risk factor for age-related dementia.

However, you can still use GPS while preserving your ability to navigate on your own. It’s important to use GPS only when necessary, and to orient yourself before launching turn-by-turn directions. Additionally, you can opt to use GPS only to get to your destination, not to find your way back home, which will force you to pay attention to your surroundings. Finally, you can opt out of using GPS while you’re driving, and instead look at the directions before you embark, and use your memory and the landmarks around you to learn the route.

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