Disorientation is always stressful, and before modern civilization, it was often a death sentence. Sometimes it still is. But recent studies have shown that people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost — assuming, of course, that you are eventually found — has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective. From that standpoint, the greatest threat posed by GPS might be that we never do not know exactly where we are.
That is from a long and very interesting Kim Tingley NYT piece on the former navigation secrets of the Marshall Islanders. Here is one bit on how it works:
The Marshalls provide a crucible for navigation: 70 square miles of land, total, comprising five islands and 29 atolls, rings of coral islets that grew up around the rims of underwater volcanoes millions of years ago and now encircle gentle lagoons. These green dots and doughnuts make up two parallel north-south chains, separated from their nearest neighbors by a hundred miles on average. Swells generated by distant storms near Alaska, Antarctica, California and Indonesia travel thousands of miles to these low-lying spits of sand. When they hit, part of their energy is reflected back out to sea in arcs, like sound waves emanating from a speaker; another part curls around the atoll or island and creates a confused chop in its lee. Wave-piloting is the art of reading — by feel and by sight — these and other patterns. Detecting the minute differences in what, to an untutored eye, looks no more meaningful than a washing-machine cycle allows a ri-meto, a person of the sea in Marshallese, to determine where the nearest solid ground is — and how far off it lies — long before it is visible.