On Death by GPS and the Search for a Safer Navigation System ‹ Literary Center
There are so many ways to die, but only a few are as modern as GPS death. Death by the Raging Bat Virus (for example) has a medieval tone. It has always been part of life on Earth for humans. But death by GPS is completely new, we invented it.
In short, an unlucky driver follows a blue cursor as he hovers over a screen, but fails to notice that the road ahead, the real road—ends. It’s the kind of thing you saw once happen to Wile E. Coyote in a cartoon – he descends off a cliff, suspended in mid-air for a moment before plunging into the canyon below – except this actually happens to people, and often enough that the phenomenon now has a name.
It is death by a glitch, by the cold diffusion of electrons – by zeros and ones. Like an episode of black mirrorthe machines in our pockets and on our dashboards rebel against us, but in a sneaky way – even until the last second a human can override the result.
There are so many stories that I can’t even keep them in mind. It’s the speed at which the tool suddenly becomes the weapon that surprises me. As a species, we congratulate ourselves on having eradicated deadly diseases like smallpox – on no longer dying of a treatable bacterial infection like tuberculosis or yellow fever – on dying because our smartphones take us to the mountains on an unfinished road and then leave us there as a blizzard dumps twelve feet of snow on us. And we obedient dogs follow without question. Our tails, like tireless metronomes, don’t even stop wagging.
It is death by a glitch, by the cold diffusion of electrons – by zeros and ones. Like an episode of black mirrorthe machines in our pockets and on our dashboards rebel against us.
For a 2017 study, researcher Allen Lin attempted to organize deaths by GPS and look for patterns in the data. He built a database of over 150 incidents and found two distinct types of GPS fatalities. More than half of all fatal events were caused by incorrect or missing data in GPS databases. In these cases, a ferry line may appear as a route instead. The clear height of a bridge may be incorrect. A GPS device might suggest an unfinished, unmaintained road that once appeared on a map, penciled and tentative, but was never real. These roads – future roads and almost roads and never roads – can be deadly.
The possibilities – the myriad ways a system can fail – are equal to the incredible degree of trust we place in our devices and the Wizards of Oz behind them, crouching behind the curtain.
But that trust is misplaced.
Research has shown that following GPS directions reduces activity levels in brain regions that govern spatial awareness. For example, when we follow step-by-step GPS instructions, the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in learning and memory, is silent and inactive. Under normal circumstances, the hippocampus helps us form an inner mental map of our environment, known as a cognitive map, which we use to understand our environment and then navigate through it.
No activity in the hippocampus means no cognitive map. At such times, the hippocampus’ computational work is instead done by a swarm of electrons, by satellites, by zeros and ones.
In a 2020 study, Harvard University researcher Louisa Dahmani quantified the impact of GPS use on our spatial capabilities. What she discovered was surprising and disturbing. First, Dahmani recruited his subjects and asked them about their GPS habits; then, she sent them into a virtual environment and asked them to navigate it. When Dahmani asked subjects to draw a bird’s-eye map of the virtual environment, the most dedicated GPS users produced less informative maps. Since GPS maps show us fewer landmarks, we train over time to actually note less benchmarks in the real world. Our brain becomes lazy.
Research has shown that following GPS directions reduces activity levels in brain regions that govern spatial awareness.
We need Landmarks. They help us form cognitive maps, which then allow us to take a shortcut or take an unplanned detour around the construction. Without them, we are lulled into unthoughtful obedience by zeros and ones, our eyes fixed on a screen floating in the dark. We obey instructions that make us fall off bridges, or drive into the ocean, or cross a nonexistent bridge, like Wile E. Coyote.
Dahmani found that heavy GPS users are much more likely to rely on step-by-step instructions. They want to be told turn left, turn right, turn left again, and ultimately this is how they learn to navigate in all environments. But it’s not really navigation.
Ultimately, this is what leads to death from GPS incidents.
Are there ways to make GPS safer? Some scientists think so. In a 2021 paper, a Microsoft research group described augmenting GPS navigation with sound, in other words, creating soundscapes for navigating. The result is an iPhone app called Soundscape, which was originally developed to help visually impaired people navigate.
Navigation is just plain difficult, says Mar Gonzalez-Franco, principal researcher who is part of the Microsoft team that developed Soundscape. “It’s a tough, tough, learned skill. We even have a specific part of the brain for this – for memory – and the fact that we delegate it to our phones is bad. The problem is that we become zombies for these GPS tools.
Instead, she sends subjects into virtual and real-world environments with a smartphone that emits an auditory beacon – a steady, pleasantly Jetsons-like ping that acts as an audio target. If a Soundscape user gradually begins to veer off course and away from the target, the ping becomes quieter and less distinct. If the user corrects his trajectory, the signal from the beacon returns, again stronger. It shows the way through space.
By following an auditory beacon, users reconnect with their environment. They take an active role in navigation – no longer a Wile E. Coyote plummeting from a missing deck. As a result, their cognitive maps are richer and more detailed. When Gonzalez-Franco asked subjects who navigated via an auditory beacon to point to the various landmarks in their surroundings, they outperformed subjects who relied solely on GPS to navigate. In other words, they created significantly better and more informative mind maps than GPS users. Similarly, when she asked subjects to draw a map showing the position of landmarks relative to each other, the maps were more accurate than those drawn by GPS users.
This may be the future of GPS, says Gonzalez-Franco.
“I think traditional GPS not only shuts down the use of hippocampal functioning, but also the decision-making process of the frontal cortex,” she says. With an auditory beacon, stinging at us, guiding us through a three-dimensional environment, we still have to make many small decisions about precisely how to hit our target.
“We don’t really need to ditch GPS completely,” she says. “We can create more attractive GPS forms.”
In the process, at every turn and carefully weighed decision – a ping at once – we can gradually build a map for ourselves, and maybe that map can set us free.
by Christopher Kemp Dark and Magical Places: The Neurosciences of Navigation is available now through WW Norton & Company.