Move: The innovations reshaping how we get around

The Fate of Human Navigation Lies Within Your Smartphone

If devices don’t adapt to help us strengthen our ability to get around, we could potentially lose it forever.

When was the last time you went someplace new without consulting your smartphone? Or decided that you were going to find your way back on your own, perhaps with the help of a local, without even glancing at a screen for guidance? You might not even remember. A 2015 study showed that 67 percent of smartphone owners use their phones at least occasionally for turn-by-turn navigation while driving, while 31 percent said they frequently do. And why not? GPS navigation systems are fast, convenient, they respond to our mistakes in real time, and they talk to us, just like a helpful stranger would. The positive impact of this kind of technology undoubtedly outweighs any negatives.

But there are some negatives. When we rely on our phones to get around, we’re passing up a chance to use our natural navigation skills—ones that humans can lose if they don’t use them frequently enough, according to a whole body of evidence. If humankind lost its ability to navigate, there would be huge implications for the world around us. How would cities, towns, streets, and plazas be designed to accommodate for the fact that, once torn away from our phones, we would struggle to get around? The likelihood of a total deterioration in our ability to navigate seems far off, if not entirely overblown—kids are still taught left from right in elementary school—but given how many people are prone to driving into rivers just because their phone told them to, there is a chance we’re headed toward a world where spatial awareness is at risk.

Exploring what happens when possibility becomes reality.

The solution to this dilemma isn’t to forswear GPS and all other technology for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep people from using smartphones and GPS navigators, nor should we really want to. But we do have the power to program our devices to encourage users to rely a little bit more on human communication and a little bit less on our phones, at least from time to time, says behavioral scientist and social psychologist Kostadin Kushlev. If Siri knows you frequent the neighborhood where you’re about to try a new restaurant with your friend, for instance, maybe she’ll suggest you try getting there on your own, without the help of the maps app.

“Your phone is already very technically smart,” Kushlev says. “But they should be a little bit more psychologically smart. They should know, based on what we know from psychology, that people’s health and wellbeing depends on these in-person social interactions, so [they could] try not to disrupt them as much as possible.”

Your phone could also aggregate data about our behaviors that indicate whether or not we need to work on spatial awareness. Then, based on that data, it could make suggestions about how to focus on that skill; maybe it would forward spatial awareness puzzles to our inbox, or let us know when Amazon’s inventory of Rubik’s Cubes reaches an all-time low. Video games, apps, and the still-burgeoning augmented reality sector are shown to have an impact on our ability to practice spatial awareness skills.

But Kushlev believes that technology itself isn’t what will determine whether or not these skills persist. Your phone can suggest you shut off your navigation app, but if you want to use it anyway, you’re going to. So if you don’t want your sense of direction to atrophy, then every once in awhile, ask a stranger for directions. A human one.

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of MOVE, our discussion about how today’s innovations could shape what we know about transportation, exploration, and navigation.