Monday, October 10, 2011

More on GPS

I've been having a (half) joking round of conversation with a friend of mine about GPS use. This particular fellow, called anonymously enough here, Bob, is of the opinion that all you need to go out into the mountains is a GPS track. I, as any one who knows me, can readily attest, do not favor over reliance on a GPS. In fact, I've written about GPS use before in my blog.

The difficulty of arguing against over-reliance on GPS units is confounded by the lack of solid research demonstrating their pitfalls. A couple of studies have looked at the effects of GPS use on spatial awareness and navigating ability and both show that compared to people who navigate by direct experience, GPS users show less spatial awareness of their surroundings and take longer to reach a target. But, these were limited studies and easy to argue against.

If you have spent much time wandering around the wilderness both with and without GPS users, you will quickly recognize someone who relies excessively on their GPS unit. These individuals truly do show a lack of awareness to the terrain around them, their map and terrain reading ability is poor to non-existent, they do take longer to reach their objective (half of the reason for that is that instead of looking where they are going they are looking at a small screen in front of them), and without having a pre-determined track to follow, they literally can not find their way out of the parking lot.

Paradoxically, the people who rely most heavily on GPS units are those that have the worst terrain and map reading skills. These people suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect - i.e. their competence is so low that they cannot accurately estimate their own competence. They could no more work out a route on a map and implement it in the field than they could reverse the tides, but, their GPS unit allows them to - with unerring confidence - say "I know where I am," thus obscuring their own incompetence. These individuals have never competently moved through terrain using only a map and their own skill and, in their ignorance, they cannot conceive of doing so.

But, of course, all this is easy to recognize in the field but hard to prove in theory. And, GPS units are so seductively easy to use. GPS units circumvent the need to learn to read contour intervals and to develop a mental picture of the terrain represented by a map. There is no need to pay attention to terrain features as you move through them, when, with the click of a button a GPS will show you on a little (and completely useless) map exactly where you are.

One of the enduring characteristics of human nature - and surely one of our less endearing - is our tendency to take the easiest route possible and to avoid at all costs having to do anything like hard work. With this in mind, I expect over-reliance on GPS units to continue to increase.

Typical Completely Oblivious GPS User

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