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Dragons have begun to appear on our dashboards and sea serpents
on our mobile devices. The screens of our navigation units have
very quietly, almost without our noticing, begun to acquire
decorations like those of ancient maps: fictional elements, like
the monsters than once warned sailors against traveling too far,
the full-cheeked mythological figures of winds, the elaborate
florid geometry of the compass rose.
The precursor to today's GPS maps: John Ogilby's 1675 map of the
Road from London to the Lands End (Wikimedia).
Most GPS (global positioning system) manufacturers such as
Garmin, TomTom and their digital media ilk
have made maps abstract again. The perfectly highlighted green and
red pushpins that mark the beginning and end of my usual journey
suggest huge water tanks along the New Jersey turnpike. Even the
most barebones functional maps are decorated with notional,
stylized green hills and puffy clouds that garnish the roads on our
Choices among parallel lanes and schematics of freeway exits
ahead are often represented by bold rods or ribbons. The design is
in the tradition of John Ogilby's
coaching maps of Britain, circa 1675, in which each road is
depicted independently, like a literal scroll that is being
unfurled. These are charming effects. But a new generation of units
have brought glitzier effects and something like luxury to the
"Luxury vehicles promise to deliver 'the best,' whatever that
may mean," says Virginia Postrel, author of The
Substance of Style, who is working on a book about glamour.
"That means giving drivers not just the most up-to-date
technology—something that they can also get in much cheaper
cars—but the most beautiful. Elegant displays, which extend sensory
perception, contribute to the feeling of mastery."
BMW's on-board navigation system.
I have played with some of the latest of them and agree. I can
report that the Rolls Royce navigation screen looks the way I
imagine the world would look to someone who could afford a Rolls
Royce: it is softly tinted, fine grained and looks good from above.
Rolls is the only maker I know to have established a consistent
typeface throughout: everything from safety labels and the owner's
manual to gauges and onscreen maps are rendered in an elegant, and
aptly British, Gill Sans typeface.
BMW has outdone itself in providing attractive colors—including
a powdery chocolate brown and faded indigo blue—for its screen. The
landscapes on its navigation screens can make my state look like
Tuscany. The way to Cheesquake and Bogota, New Jersey, appears
edged with blue hills out of a Leonardo and wispy clouds from Piero
The push buttons rendered with almost trompe l'oeil
literalism on the touch screen are even more painterly. Look
closely and you can see the subtle reflection of an artist's face
and a room behind him, like an effect in a Flemish master oil
painting—Vermeer on the dashboard.
Comica Park in Detroit as rendered on a Buick navigation
Buick's optional display offers carefully crafted miniatures of
notable buildings and sites such as Comerica Park in Detroit; way
out-of-scale but as neatly rendered as if it were inked on a
We also now have more choices in the voices that guide us.
TomTom got attention when it offered Burt Reynolds and Homer
Simpson. You can now get Darth Vader or Bob Dylan or 50 more voices.
Maps now render traffic information with red or orange warnings.
Soon it will pulse, with jammed freeways glowing like suffering
nerves. In the near future, parking zones will glow yellow for
metered limits, blink green for open spots.
But the advances are not just technical, they are aesthetic.
There is a whole field of interface design here and a lot of art to
these technical displays.
I love the pixel-perfect gleaming blue bubble on Google maps,
with its radiating rings like radio waves, but I also enjoy seeing
my spot on the planet marked, as it was in one luxury auto's
system, with a lovely translucent disc, almost like a halo.
Such choices are highly subjective. I am a particular fan of the
bird's-eye view over the flat map. I'm not sure why. Does it make
me feel as though I can fly above traffic? Does it imply the view
Bird's-eye-view illustrations were popular in the United States
in the 1880s and 1890s, thanks to that novelty, the balloon. Images
from on high were often used as promotional images for new towns in
the west that were sure to be the next Chicago or next Kansas City.
Some of the best examples are included in a classic book by
historian John Reps called Bird's
Eye Views: Historic Lithographs of North American
Example of a GPS screen with a halo-like "you are here" spot and
painterly clouds in a blue sky.
No map is "realistic." Maps reflect the way we see the world and
the parts we consider most important. Take Saul Steinberg's
View of the World from 9th Avenue, his famous
perspective of the way New Yorkers see the rest of the world.
According to Colin
Ellard, a behavioral neuroscientist and author of the book
Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the
Mall, good navigation is all about storytelling—and in some
(Appropriately, for a study of our sense of place, the title of
Ellard's book varies
with geography: it is called Where Am I? in Canada and
You Are Here in the United States. Perhaps the tentative,
questioning tone of the former and the assertive one of the latter
are implicit comments on national cultures.)
While humans don't have the innate navigation ability of, say, a
sea turtle, Ellard reasons, what we do have is the ability to
imagine places where we are not—even places that never were. But
when we try to decide where we really are right now, that strength
can be a weakness.
Navigating New York City in an Audi (left) and a Ford
Ellard's emphasis on imagination reminds us that all maps are,
in some sense, useful fictions, and some of the best ones are
wholly fictional, such as Faulkner's map
of Yoknapatawpha County, drawn at the request of one of his
editors, Malcolm Cowley, or Robert Louis Stevenson's map of
Peter Turchi in his book Maps of
the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer explains that
Stevenson's map preceded his novel. Stevenson was drawing rather
aimlessly one rainy afternoon when he came up with the idea of the
map. Stevenson wrote: "I made the map of an island that was
elaborately and (I thought) beautifully colored… the shape of it
took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbors that pleased
me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined I
ticketed it 'Treasure Island'… the future characters began to
appear there visibly among the imaginary woods…."
Maps can exist beyond paper or stone. Directions can be stories,
even epics, as in the famous case of the song lines of Australia,
Ellard writes. They work by virtue of a spiritual attachment to the
landscape. Our spiritual attachment may be to technology instead.
The cultures that are good at wayfinding are ones that have an eye
for detail, Usually, this grows out of life on the land. But today
even a basic sense of the cardinal directions is increasingly rare
in a world that is more cut off from the farm and field. "We have
lost a lot of the skills our forebears had," says Ellard.
Navigation, according to Ellard, is ultimately about trust. Do
you believe the story? Trust has always been critical: how much
stock can we put in the directions given by the old farmer leaning
on a fence with a blade of straw in his mouth?
Downtown Detroit as seen on a Cadillac GPS navigation system
It took many years to get drivers to trust electronic equipment
to give them directions. Today we can have too much trust. Tales of
drivers who blindly follow electronic instructions into disaster
in news reports with increasing frequency—the extreme being the
case of the driver who continues on the road even though the bridge
has been washed out. People drive onto train tracks or up one-way
streets. In suburban New York, several trucks struck bridges too
low for them to pass while following navigation units. The roads in
question forbade trucks, but the nav units didn't know what type of
vehicle they were installed in.
There are dangers inherent in simple software bugs, obsolete
maps and systems that update too slowly for the conditions.
Sometimes repair work or changes in the highway make the
instructions obsolete. I saw this on the very first nav unit I
tested, perhaps a dozen years ago. I recall the phrase the screen
displayed when we arrived at a dead end not shown on the map:
"infrastructure interference." Which I would translate as, the real
world got in the way of the map world.
A GPS nav screen features candy-like green and yellow dots
indicating traffic flow or congestion along Interstate 80.
That danger created by the conflicting worlds of map and reality
has increased, thanks to the very attractiveness and style of the
improved screens. The problem lies in the possibility that,
as Tom Vanderbilt put it
in a recent piece in Slate, "drivers, lulled by the
richness of the visuals, might begin to focus excessively on this
detailed, unscrolling world to the exclusion of other events."
The world seen on the screen risks becoming more attractive than
the one seen out the windshield, but then that is the threat posed
by all media if abused. "You can make the same argument about any
technology," says Ellard. "Television can be educational but it's
not good to watch it 16 hours a day." TV brings us more sports to
watch than ever—and reduces the time we put into real sports. Audio
guides in museums can distract from seeing the art before us. Our
lives are full of technology like this. Navigational guides may be
the same way. We build clever model worlds to help us figure our
way in the real world, then we forget the difference between the
Not long ago I was playing with the navigation software on my
iPhone. I wanted to show my wife how familiar neighborhoods looked
in satellite view. I kept my head down, looking at the device. She
"Don't you want to see where we are?" I asked.
"I know where we are," she said.
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