The Map is Not The Territory

I grew up in an era and place when and where publicly available maps were deliberately modified to confuse the “enemy”. Of course this also confused people and we developed an instinct to not trust maps completely. We treated them as guidelines, tools, but were always alert that they could surprise us.

Now, some 30 years later, that everyone bashing Apple about their maps (especially after the Australian incident), it is time to think about our reliance on GPS-based mapping solutions. My opinion is that people became overly dependent on electronic gadgets and tend to lose the ability to navigate the world (both literally and figuratively). So it’s time to ask yourself: Could I read a map? Do I have a paper based map and/or regular compass?

Let me tell you four stories that illustrate problems with map data accuracy – regardless of vendor.

  • In 2001 I escorted a small group to Microsoft’s developer conference held in Los Angeles. We rented three cars, one equipped with GPS navigation. We arrived a day earlier to have some fun in Universal Studios. On Sunday morning, all three cars departed at the same time from the hotel, but the GPS-using team arrived almost an hour after us. The reason: their GPS was unable to take account Sunday morning runners, which my human navigator easily worked around.
  • In 2003, during my first trip to the American Southwest we used Microsoft MapPoint for navigation. It was really great until we wanted to go to Goblin Valley. Instead of the state park, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, where – according to the map – we had to turn left. Across the desert… So we picked another map, and realized that the state park is some 80 miles away, as MapPoint cut some corners and thought that there is a road there.
  • Vienna, 2004. I had to go to a morning meeting, but the Garmin map I used at that time navigated me into a construction area, just two blocks away from my intended destination, but cut off by the construction. Asking the locals for directions allowed me to arrive at the meeting on time.
  • In 2008, we wanted to visit Mount Rainier for a quick morning shoot before we departed for Page, AZ. We used iGo on my Windows Mobile powered phone. We got lost – and by the time we recovered the light has gone. The app’s map had no idea about the national park’s entrances, so this attempt to catch morning light there was a failure.

I don’t want to defend Apple or other companies, but GPS based solutions (and even paper based maps to some degree) are just decision making aids. Trusting them to make decisions that WE should make is downright foolish and dangerous. Don’t confuse the map with the territory!

I developed some habits (besides the one I had since my early years: not trusting maps overly) that help me avoid most of the navigation related (and induced) problems:

  • I never-ever, under no circumstances use a mobile phone for navigation while driving. That damn phone call always comes at the worst moment… Of course I could use the phone in emergency situations, but not for regular navigation.
  • I prefer to see to big picture (where the GPS is taking me) before departing, and sometimes during the trip. This is why I prefer large screen GPSes – I like to see the entire map, nut just a tiny fragment up to the next turn. This way I can catch gross routing errors quickly.
  • Having a “mitfahrer” to handle route planning and tracking during photo trips on unknown territories is a big plus.
  • Out in the wild, I always have ample gas, water and food with me.
  • I take time to learn the territories where I shoot a lot. And this cannot be done from a map! You have to go out, wander the land and build a map in your head.
  • I always carry a good old magnetic compass in my photo backpack (next to the flashlight).
  • Route logging is always turned on on my GPS (this saved us once in Iceland).

The takeaway? Quite simple: do not trust your life to GPS maps. They are mostly helpful, but go wrong all the time.

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