I was in Salem, Massachusetts, and as I was driving down the street, I thought to myself: “okay…the second turn after the hospital sign is Proctor Street.”
It occurred to me, as I thought this to myself, that I haven’t thought this thought in a long time.
The reason for my thought was that I was trying to get home without using Google Maps. I had made the trip a couple of times, and it was becoming as hardwired in my mind as a trip to the corner market. Still, there were a couple of kinks, and I was making sure I had ironed them out.
Yet it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t necessary to have this little thought about the turn to make onto Proctor Street. Had I chosen, I could have simply never chosen to expend any thought about the right way to get back from the gym. For the rest of my life, I could have simply turned that part of my brain over to other things, and let Google Maps bring me home.
This whole thing made me think about how, when we went to a friend’s house not long ago—not long ago at all, in fact—we grabbed a pen and paper, and wrote down the directions. These directions were full of landmarks to check out in anticipation of left and right turns, and full of other landmarks that told us we’d missed those turns. Often, too, these directions had little subtleties, such as “now you’ll go down a bit, and the road will curve sharply to the left; you’ll sort of see a mini dead end street, with a mailbox on the corner…I live three houses down to the right from that mailbox.”
This makes me think of a good friend of mine, Joe, who teaches geography classes at Salem State College. Time and again, Joe talks about the importance of maps, and how they give you a sense of where you are in the world. This, in turn, always makes me think about how long it’s been since I’ve really looked at a map.
To be sure, yes, of course I look at those little sections of land that Google Maps throws up on my computer when I check how long (to the minute) it will take to get from one place to the other. Still, though, it has been a long time since I’ve unfolded a piece of paper, spread it out, and traced paths with my finger.
Back when I lived in Los Angeles, a basic necessity was something called The Thomas Guide, a phone book sized tome that had maps of every street in Los Angeles. This was key if you needed to get someplace, and often involved flipping from one page to the other, tracing the path from map to map.
None of that is necessary anymore, as we only need to enter those destinations in our cell phone. In the same way that writing things down made mnemonics unnecessary (you could just read epic poems instead of memorizing them), so is it now unnecessary to keep so many other things in our head. A little while back, I recited someone’s phone number to them, and had them tell me that they didn’t remember mine…and some, I’m sure, don't even remember their own.
Sure, freeing up our minds so that they can turn to other things has its appeal, but I can’t help but think that we’ve lost something. Yes, I can fully devote my mind to things such as this essay, but when I think of the time that I spend devoting my energies to my next Facebook post, I can’t help but feel as if something is now gone that I missing. Yes, I may be able to tell someone exactly how many likes I got, but I often can’t answer a much more important question: where, exactly, am I?