Are Google Maps and GPS bad for our brains?

( Illustration by Ben Kirchner)
By Nicholas Carr
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Just before dawn on the morning of Jan. 19, 2009, a Los Angeles woman named Lauren Rosenberg was hit by a car while crossing a four-lane highway in Park City, Utah. Last month, more than a year after the accident, she filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that the route for her walk had been suggested by Google Maps. She's asking for more than $100,000 in damages, in part to cover the hefty medical bills she says she incurred.

Google, Rosenberg's lawyer said in explaining the suit, bears some responsibility for her injuries. He argued that Google Maps provided walking directions, which Rosenberg downloaded to her BlackBerry, that sent her down a busy road without sidewalks or streetlights, putting her in harm's way.

Blaming Google seems like a stretch. Using any kind of map requires caution, and on its site the company warns people about the dangers inherent in walking near traffic (though it's not clear whether the warning appeared on Rosenberg's BlackBerry). Google, a multibillion-dollar company, is a big target, and Rosenberg's suit may prove frivolous.

But her experience should nevertheless give us pause. It highlights a remarkable shift in the way people get around these days. We may not all be wandering across highways in the dark, but most of us have become dependent on computer-generated maps of one sort or another. I know that when I'm in my car, I rarely give much thought anymore to where I am or what route I'm taking. I just turn on the GPS and follow the instructions.

The trust we place in computerized directions can, as Rosenberg discovered, have unintended and unpleasant consequences.

Internet mapping services and GPS navigation systems are extraordinarily useful. They guide us to distant and out-of-the-way places that were once a hassle to find. They quickly get us back on course when we take a wrong turn. Listening to instructions from a GPS device certainly beats wrangling with a big paper map while trying to steer a car -- something I confess to having done all too often in the past.

In extreme situations, GPS units can even be lifesavers. Just ask anyone who's been lost in the wilderness during a hiking or camping trip. When you have a GPS device in your pack, you always know the way back to civilization.

But even though our gadgets seem magical, they don't know everything. As most of us have discovered, navigation systems can give bad advice as well as good. You may not get hit by a car, but you could find yourself driving in circles or stuck at a construction site or marooned in a dodgy part of town.

Because the software programs that generate maps tend to recommend routes based on simple calculations of speed and distance, they can end up promoting convoluted and dangerous traffic patterns. Sometimes, for instance, they divert drivers from highways and send them through residential neighborhoods or past schools.

A couple of years ago, a quiet hamlet in southwestern England called Barrow Gurney found itself suddenly overrun by cars and trucks. A GPS system had calculated that the route through town could provide a time-saving shortcut between highways, and drivers robotically followed the resulting directions. The local government lobbied, fruitlessly, to have the town erased from computer maps.

GPS units have also been implicated in thousands of accidents. Last month, a New Jersey driver, dutifully following GPS commands, made an illegal left turn and caused a four-car pileup. Too often when we turn on our navigation systems, we turn off our common sense and stop paying attention to where we're headed.

More ominously still, there are signs that our growing reliance on automated GPS directions could end up altering the circuitry in our brains.

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