The joys of not knowing the way ‘home’

Map reading and navigation can be challenging – personally, finding my location on the map when touring a new place is not always easy. As a result, I thought for many years that having a device that could guide me ‘home’ would be really useful. Of course, away from home, ‘home’ may mean the hotel that I’m staying in. Today, it is possible to have such a device, as many smartphones are capable of finding their location and use services such as Google Maps.

A recent visit to Turin (Torino) made me rethink this view. The hotel I stayed in provided a typical tourist map (see example below) with a delightful depiction of the buildings in the centre of the city, clearly marked tourist attractions and, as always, some additional information on the back of the map.[ The map was produced by A&C e Turismo Torino ]

Turin Map - Small

Touring the centre of a new place is a very enjoyable activity, and I realised that I didn’t want to get from the hotel to the centre in the most direct and efficient way. I really enjoy in looking in shops, public buildings, markets and other urban features along the way. Also, the fact that the map covered a large area at ‘high information density’ (the amount of information per square inch of interface area), because the printing is 6 to 10 times denser than a computer screen and arguably 60 times the area that is covered by the best smartphone screen, enabled me to see the ‘big picture’ and to notice more or less where I was heading. Instead of navigation by following a specific street, I was using the map to provide me with the general direction.

Nothing of the above is new, but, when I consider my experience and the enjoyment of touring a city and compare it to the current provision in navigation devices, I can see how much they are capable of spoiling the enjoyment of getting lost. Maybe the smart compass, as suggested by Max Egenhofer, can be useful for keeping the experience without destroying the really enjoyable aspects of it.

For a more general comment in the same vein, see Don Norman’s discussion in the recent ACM ‘Interactions’ journal for a more general complaint about devices and services which can destroy certain human enjoyments.

Published by

mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

2 thoughts on “The joys of not knowing the way ‘home’”

  1. Muki – I think the concept of being ‘lost’ is quite a complex one which is usually thought of as being unproblematic (or self explanatory). This is despite the fact that, to a significant extent, it must be regarded as both socially and psychologically constructed somewhere in the socio-spatial layer between ‘society’ and physical space.

    I’ve noticed many times on walking around cities with friends (who often insist on using these ‘map’ things) that they declare us ‘lost’ when I think we are just somewhere in the city.

    If there is a specific place we need to be and time we need to be there, then I find the notion of being ‘lost’ understandable but otherwise it doesn’t seem to make much sense: how can we be lost when there is no imperative telling us where else we should be?

    In other words, I find people impose a certain ‘origin destination’ model on themselves which is suggested by the way we tend to interpret maps, rather than by using the urban grid itself to navigate the city (which is what I think you were doing in Turin).

    In this sense, sat navs and their ilk are quite pernicious in imposing a particular metric on the lived environment that is quite abstract and makes us think in terms of being ‘lost’ rather than being somewhere.

    Tim Ingold has something to say about this in his Lines: A Brief History.(See: http://tinyurl.com/3yoqva)

  2. Really good point, Sam!
    Indeed, being ‘lost’ is quite complex, and I was using the term in the sense of the safe version of being ‘lost’: not knowing where you are exactly, but not to a degree that raises panic.
    In my opinion, being ‘lost’ does not require another demand from us on being in another place at that time, or in getting from A to B. There is the subjective notion that you don’t know where you are exactly…

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