Friday, September 05, 2008

Satnav, democracy and dumbing down

In my most recent Calder's Comfort Farm column for the New Statesman website I wrote:

People’s reliance on in-car technology, says the President of the British Cartographic Society, is breeding a generation scared of reading maps.

What maps there are offer a sterile view of the world. England is a palimpsest of Medieval churches, abandoned mineral railways, ruinous Gothic institutions and follies built by mad aristocrats. But you won’t find them on your satnav.

The President of the British Cartographic Society is Mary Spence and you can find a report of her remarks in the Daily Telegraph.

A subsequent editorial in the Guardian argued:

This view fails to grasp the boundless opportunities opened by interactive websites that enable users to put their own photographs or comments on any part of a map. This wealth of information can be used by anyone with an internet-connected laptop or the right sort of mobile phone.

This would have been a useful corrective, except that this is not how most people use internet maps.

I was more struck by a letter in The Times today from Nicole Perry of the Ordnance Survey. In it she says:
The paper map is still vital for walkers and outdoor enthusiasts but satellite navigation systems and web mapping have democratised geography like never before.
How have navigation systems and web mapping "democratised" geography? They certainly have not made it easier to afford: this equipment costs far more than a paper map. So Perry must mean that they have removed the need to learn to read a map.

The is an odd view of democracy. To me, democratisation would involve a process that made one of the good things in the life available to everybody.

But satnav does not spread the joy of understanding the landscape - Medieval churches, abandoned mineral railways, ruinous Gothic institutions and follies built by mad aristocrats - through spreading map reading skills. It offers a debased version of that experience so that it can be sold to everyone.

This is not democratisation. It is dumbing down. More evidence here.


Anonymous said...

Apart from users missing out on interesting sites - satnavs are dangerously distracting in my view and I've seen reports of surveys suggesting many satnav users admit to be distracted. Satnavs seem to me as dangerous to a driver as a hand-held mobile phone.

dreamingspire said...

The comment was about "satellite navigation systems", not limited to the Sat Nav in a car. For those having trouble with a paper map, a GPS unit is a godsend.

Anonymous said...


you say that the guardian is wrong for detailing how people don't use internet maps, but then go on to say "satnav does not spread the joy of understanding the landscape" - this isn't how most people use maps either. Most people use maps for a) working out where the hell they are or b) working out where the hell they're going. So they choose their mapping preferences on those crtieria.

I also think you are being a touch unfair on Nicole - she quite evidently says "Consumers now have a choice" and it is by this she means democratisation. If what you want to do is find all the churches without spires in Little Shitting while you are out for your Sunday afternoon stroll then a paper map would be great. If, however, you want to get from Little Shitting to Upper Bottom as quickly as possible then a satnav is better. If you want to know what people think of The Old Cow & Kebab on Upper Bottom high street then head to an internet map mash-up. So perhaps Nicole is simply confusing liberty and democracy (Is she a Lib Dem?). Choice. Freedom. Liberty. Fantastic.

As for the safety aspect, perhaps satnav's are distracting, but I doubt no more than fishing around in the rear seat footwell while doing 90 down the A4 looking for 1996 edition of the AA roadmap.

Anonymous said...

As a long-term SatNav sceptic I have to admit to a damscene conversion. Using a borrowed satnav it made driving through London a piece of cake, and meant that you could enjoy the scenery without constantly craning at the map to check where the hell you were. No more 'You said RIGHT!', or 'That must have been the turn...' Just the mellifluous and unobtrusive tones of Jane the satnav girl who, though a bit humourless, has the patience of a saint.

My guess is that, like me, most of those ranting against the device have never used one.

To label it as 'dumbing down' is just silly. If you can afford it, using a satnav is the smart way to find your way round a strange city's one-way system. It's certainly less distracting and safer than using an A-Z.

Anonymous said...

One of the joys of being a rural county councillor is online access to the 1880 and 1905 OS maps which can be overlaid on the current OS map; thus arguments over should it be ‘the Strand’ or ‘Strand’ have been resolved for a parish council, and old street names have been resurrected and given to new developments on the site where they ran. I’ve been able to help a local historian discover an ancient leat.

Sat nav is the cause of much trouble, as HGV drivers blindly follow their sav nav down country lanes and get stuck and knocking chucks out of cob walls.

John B said...

I think you're missing the point on "democratisation": it's not that a GPS is cheap, it's that it's easy and maps the whole country (or the whole world) at whatever scale you like. Paper maps aren't and don't.

If I want to go for a walk somewhere, I can go and do that - rather than heading to a camping shop and buying lots of sheets of paper (and then putting them somewhere, and then not being able to find them a couple of years later when I do the same trip again, and having to buy new ones). It's got nothing to do with the inability to use a paper map as such...

(on HGVs, this isn't really a failing of satnavs so much a failure of idiot cheapskate drivers: you can buy HGV-specific satnavs that have the correct roads on them, but some people buy cheaper ones meant for cars.)