June 17, 2008 -- For most people -- the cab driver, the tourist, the business traveler -- the ubiquitous GPS has become a lifeline, giving directions to the nearest bathroom, a pizza joint or the shortest route to the office.
But, just like with spell-checker before it, some experts believe that the guiding device gives less than what it takes away. The price we pay for the convenience, they say, could be our sense of direction.
For years, the Web-surfing faithful have used Internet-based maps and route finders, like MapQuest and Google Maps, to guide them to their destinations. These online options bring travelers instantly calculated directions, without having to scrutinize colorful representations of roads. But now, as BlackBerrys and the new iPhone that hits stores on July 11 become GPS-enabled, the world will see a drastic leap in hand-held technology, as well.
As the prices on these devices drop -- the new iPhone will cost only about $200 -- more people will be able to possess these GPS phones. This new affordability may increase our addiction to GPS, according to Ian White, founder of Urban Mapping, a company that licenses geographic data for use in online maps, like Google Maps.
"When we develop a crutch for technology, we lose the ability to do that which we did previously," White said. "It couldn't be more true. People become more and more reliant, and their expectations get bigger and bigger, and if technology doesn't deliver, they get frustrated."
This dependence can already be seen in the use of GPS in cars, which has become more prevalent. If other phone makers follow Apple's footsteps, look for GPS to become even more commonplace.
"I think GPS is going to continue to be embedded in more and more digital devices, including kinds that we haven't even imagined yet," Middlebury College geography professor Anne Knowles said. "Any human activity takes place somewhere. I think we could see GPS units in our watches, in credit cards, or for any human activity that relies on knowing where you are or planning where you're going to go."
Kevin Slavin, managing director and co-founder of area/code, a company that makes games based on geography, said that getting lost helps develop our sense of place, and contributes to a functioning society.
"There is a social function of being lost," Slavin said. "And that social function of being lost will itself be lost. Think about how many times in the last month or so you have asked somebody for directions, or somebody has asked you for directions. That bit of social communication, in which a stranger and native meet at some point, will slowly ebb away. The question is: Will we feel ourselves to be natives everywhere, or to be strangers everywhere?"
But soon, people may not need to have any sense of direction whatsoever. The GPS on the iPhone allows a person to search for a type of place, such as a Chinese restaurant, eliminating search time for places people don't yet know exist, but also ending that human impulse to explore.
The technology may just be the beginning of a new, previously unthinkable form of localization, according to White.
"I remember hearing this idea from well over 10 years ago," he said. "You walk down the street, you walk by a Starbucks, and your phone buzzes and says, 'Get a dollar off your next latte!' That's not even close to happening yet. But what the iPhone has done that is very much popularized, and has been made incredibly easy and elegant, is a way to derive value from your location."
Jeff Han, a consulting research scientist for New York University's department of computer science, who developed an interactive multi-touch screen that includes GPS functions, foresees a decline in GPS popularity due to privacy issues, after an initial surge in use.
"What does it mean when everyone can potentially point out where all their friends are?" he said. "Instead of actively calling all of your friends, you can say, 'Oh yeah, a few of them are over here.' So, that brings in social issues, and those are the things not yet worked out by cell phone companies.
"All of those things are being experimented, and I think that people will realize that they are giving up too much information about themselves, and there will be a little bit of backtracking," Han said.
Of course, use of GPS isn't all negative. One potential -- and perhaps obvious -- beneficial change will be cutting down on travel time. People will not spend long hours walking around looking for a hidden street if their cell phones can show them the way. Travelers will most likely feel more confident in new locations. Parents may give their children more freedom to walk by themselves at younger ages; their phones will take them home.
Knowles views the negative effects of widely-used GPS as intertwined with the potential for humans to expand their understanding of space.
"One effect of an increased dependence on GPS will be that peoples' ability to read maps will further decay," Knowles said. "Americans are generally poor map readers. Some cannot read maps at all because it's not part of our education.
"But what will grow, instead, will be better geographic imagination and awareness. People will see the connections between places more clearly -- not quite as accurately -- but will better imagine how to get from one place to another because of this technology."