Categories: Maps and Cartography

How Does GPS Technology Affect Our Understanding of Place?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” More recently, this has been paraphrased as something more like “Life is a journey, not a destination.” It’s no secret today that more of us are using Global Position System (GPS) technology on our hand-held devices. However, how is this affecting our understanding and experience of place? In other words, is our journey now somehow diminished because we use GPS? This question has been a focus by some recent research.


The current generation of young adults have grown-up on using navigation aids such as Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) to find their destinations of choice, often using such devices even for relatively familiar journeys such as to one’s home from a nearby location. In fact, one can call the use of such technologies as second nature, where one recent study has suggested that mobile devices have become a comfort tool. But, because these tools are almost a part of us, they also diminish our sense of place and experiences we might otherwise have as we navigate through a place and to our destination. For instance, devices generally are used to tell us the fastest route, but other experiences might be preferred by the user or even have positive impact on the user. This can include experiencing less noise or perhaps a more scenic route that helps relax us. Navigation using GPS is mostly focused on avoiding annoyances that delay us but they do not select for things that may enrich our experience with a place.[1]

“Because we used the GPS I didn’t take much notice of what was around me.” Participants were asked to draw a sketch of their short route from a residential street and a transport interchange based on one of three navigation strategies: “blind” (no maps or GPS were provided), use of an Ordnance Survey Map, and using Google Maps on a smartphone. In this figure, the three routes drawn by Participant 6 are displayed. Source: McCullough & Collins, 2018.

Studies on the brain and the use of GPS, along with augmented reality (AR), have shown that there are transformations in the brain that could affect well being and perceptions individuals experience in using these technologies. Changes to the brain have shown a decrease in functional coupling between the hippocampus and different brain regions. In other words, we might be changing our cognitive abilities by over dependence on technologies such as GPS and AR in ways that could be have a long-term impact on us, although the extent of that impact is currently unclear.[2]

The diverse wellbeing experiences valued by different participants in one local area. Figure: Bell et al., 2015

Experience of place is also shown to be important in areas such as engaging with green space or blue space that allows us to have more healthy encounters with our built or natural environment. Studies have looked at how paper maps or having users actively engage with their spaces on a journey has many health and mental benefits. Options that would allow navigation to consider these healthier characteristics or life encounters as part of journey planning could then provide those additional mental, health, or even social benefits, given how many or most people experience places. This does not mean we replace our use of GPS but we can begin to incorporate experience as part of our navigation search and path determination.[3]

Currently, there are an increasing number of health and well-being applications developed for mobile devices. For example, health professionals have been making significant progress in developing self-managing technologies that assist with mental health issues.[4]What research appears to suggest is perhaps integrating such applications with the way we use GPS could be a way forward. This could be in the form of a well-being score that is personalized and maximizes routes that provide this as part of our future navigation aids.

What the use of GPS is showing is that it is distancing us from real world experiences that could have potentially long-term effects on us. On the one hand, this could mean we have less rich experiences, but on the other this could also have important consequences on our health and well-being. Experiences we have with our surroundings clearly enrich us. This is something that future navigation tools may have to consider more as being critical rather than mostly focusing on getting from A to B as fast as possible.


[1]    For more on how navigation devices could potentially better serve us by informing us on experiences and the problem with over dependence on current navigation technologies, see:  McCullough, D., & Collins, R. (2018). “Are we losing our way?” Navigational aids, socio-sensory way-finding and the spatial awareness of young adults. Area.


[2]    For more on how GPS and AR could affect cognitive coupling, see: Fajnerová, I., Greguš, D., Hlinka, J., Nekovářová, T., Škoch, A., Zítka, T., … Horáček, J. (2018). Could Prolonged Usage of GPS Navigation Implemented in Augmented Reality Smart Glasses Affect Hippocampal Functional Connectivity? BioMed Research International

, 2018, 1–10.

[3]    For more on experiencing place and its benefits to individuals, see: Bell, S. L., Phoenix, C., Lovell, R., & Wheeler, B. W. (2015). Using GPS and geo-narratives: a methodological approach for understanding and situating everyday green space encounters: Using GPS and geo-narratives. Area, 47(1), 88–96.

[4]    For more on mental health and use of apps that could potentially be integrated as part of normal navigation, see: Rickard, N., Arjmand, H.-A., Bakker, D., & Seabrook, E. (2016). Development of a Mobile Phone App to Support Self-Monitoring of Emotional Well-Being: A Mental Health Digital Innovation. JMIR Mental Health, 3(4), e49.

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