Dear Companion Orienteers:
Several weeks ago, I discovered that my dog walking app also measured my elevation. I could track not only direction and distance (think Doug Cogan’s Flatland), but also feet above sea level. It seemed fairly accurate. I wouldn’t suggest balancing your phone on your child’s head to get readings for a growth chart, but it did register a seven-foot change in elevation from when it was on the ground and when I held it over my head.
Years ago, before Google Maps and MapQuest, we had these things called…maps. They were complexly folded, massive pieces of paper kept in the glove compartment of the car. (Since we no longer needed heavy work gloves to operate the crank-starter of the car, we put maps where the gloves used to be.) A common road trip instruction was, “Get out the map and figure out where we are.” Unfurling the paper printed with the roads and landmarks of the appropriate region, you would scour the page until enough references aligned between the markings on the page and the stuff out the window; only then could you declare with some confidence that you “knew” where you were. The hardest part of the process was what happened next—you would use your best origami skills to attempt to place the positional reference document back in the box that had never held gloves in your life.
Shopping malls still have these map-things; they’re usually called directories. Because they are stationary, they contain a helpful pink triangle with the friendly news, “You are here!”, information that has become completely useless with the advent of global positioning. Now, I never need to wonder where I am. I pull out my Wi-Fi enabled device to discover I’m right in the center of anywhere I happen to be. No messy searching around to find myself—my phone constructs the world around me from my self-centered vantage point.
I fear this kind of relentless oriented certainty has begun to change how I think of my place in the world. From my center, my apps unfurl the universe around me as they construct your world around you. My center is not your center, and if I mark your location on my map, you are definitely off-center, unless you move closer to me. The additional illusion conveys a sense that I don’t actually move; the cartographic world moves relative to my pinpointed self…nice of you to come over.
I’m not sure how this relentless certainty of place will play out sociologically, but I am concerned for generations growing up presuming they are the focal point of everything. I believe we’re forgetting our position relative to others. We no longer search for ourselves to discover we’re off course; we are tempted to experience everything and everyone else outside of the frame that defines our boundaries. I can two-finger-pinch you into my screen of observation, but I can just as easily sweep you off my scope by opening that same pinch. I never have to struggle with the possibility that I’m the one who is far off.
I’m also concerned that, like cursive writing, we’ll lose the skill to fold large pieces of paper into manageable sizes; but then again, I also never learned how to crank-start a car. I’m also annoyed that, when I downloaded my dog walk app, the elevation feature is now confined to the paid subscription version. Now I have no idea how many feet above sea level Aggi walked today.
Positioning myself in new ways, I remain,