How does GPS change our perceptions?

by on March 21, 2016 at 2:36 am in Education, History, Science, Travel | Permalink

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.


1 Ray Lopez March 21, 2016 at 2:45 am

In the tropics, and even in the wilds of Greece, you become disoriented in the deep brush, unless you have experience, in about 20 yards. Try it sometime, but tie a string around your waist with a ball of twine or bag of bread crumbs to make it back.

2 Ray Lopez March 21, 2016 at 3:04 am

The cynics in the NYT comments section have my vote: this skill could be ‘dead reckoning’, which many people have, not really ‘wave reading’ and btw the traditional expert wave readers are all dead now, as the article states. Still, I have a pet theory that the Polynesians settled South America by outrigger canoe, not by the Bering Sea land bridge.

3 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 5:55 am

Surely a handful made it that far among the many many thousands who died at sea after getting blown of course, but I’m pretty sure that genetic analysis basically proves that Amerindians largely arose from the original waves of incomers and proceeded south. Even having identified unique Polynesian markers, I assume that you’d have to have extremely large datasets of South Americans before you’d even come across a single individual who possessed any such markers.

We know that they made it as far as Easter Island, and it’s an awful long way from Easter Island to the Americas. Before maps and astronomy, it’s basically a crapshoot, and I doubt that even 1 in 1000 canoes heading in that general direction would have had survivors make it to the Americas.

4 meets March 21, 2016 at 4:50 am

Ok, I’ll try it.

5 Turdley McPooh March 21, 2016 at 12:03 pm

Try it in your front yard first. Let’s be safe everybody.

6 Axa March 21, 2016 at 3:08 am

My cynic side is laughing. Knowledge kept under dead threat will probably disappear. The problem of relying only on a elite to guard knowledge.

7 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 6:49 am

Considering that you could fit a map of every roadway on the planet onto a thumbdrive, I see no reason why we won’t be able to have cars keeping track of their own locations rather than relying on GPS, with all information held internally. Self driving cars will probably become hotbeds of advertising for many models, however, and GPS would help to ensure that advertisers can always have their maximum impact based on knowing your location. It’s not clear that enough people will demand ad-free self-sufficient models to sustain the less dystopian-prone end of the market.

8 JWatts March 21, 2016 at 10:44 am

“will demand ad-free self-sufficient models to sustain the less dystopian-prone end of the market.”

I have a hard time considering advertisements as dystopian.

9 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Not the advertisements themselves, which presumably you could avoid by buying higher-end cars at least initially, but if advertisers are tracking your real-time location to target advertisements, then presumably security agencies would too, perhaps with full tracking eventually becoming mandatory, billed under something like “optimizing fleetwide efficiency” or some such thing.

That provides the potential for dystopian endings, but you’re still looking at a system which potentially continues to have the best interests of the public geniunely in mind as a general matter of practice. BUT, this is a key first step towards all the rest, and should definitely be resisted. The fall would be contingent on the ability of certain political interests to massage language and opinion over time to few as “terrorist threats” or some such thing what we would normally accept now as accepted practice with respect to first amendment rights (which are much less strongly entrenched in most analogues outside of the USA).

For example, the last government in Canada (recently booted out, but not all that firmly) started introducing language in various legislation which grouped together environmentalists and terrorism in the same sentence, and followed this up with poorly defined anti-terrorism legislation which suggested that anything which could negatively impact the economy could be defined as terrorism – meanwhile, the FBI (or Canada’s equivalent, the RCMP) began infiltrating various environmentalist groups such as grannies meeting in church basement to monitor their potentially anti-state and economically damaging activities, furthermore illegally providing some of this ill-gotten information to corporations who were the targets of these proto-lobbyist efforts. In one case, these grannies were knitting away to raise money to promote awareness of the issues, a more obvious example of a non-threat that got targeted as language and practice was being slowly massaged in that direction. It may have been more to intimidate environmentalists into silence rather than an actual efforts to massage public consciousness regarding environmentalists in the direction of viewing them as anti-state terrorist threats (this has most certain gained some traction in certain quarters in the extreme right in Canada), but it seems that rather the opposite happened – now there is open discussion across the country of keeping the oil in the ground and our pro-environment Prime Minister is in relative terms now on the side of the oil companies in promoting the role of oil in the Canadian economy.

Another type of examples would be shenanigans like those of Trump where mere criticism of certain things (especially criticism of Trump) would be subject to lawsuits if he were to get his way. If people could tolerate such a thing, what more could they tolerate? Not to pick on Trump, but it’s convenient point of mental reference in carrying on the scenario. 1) First, criticism of Trump is subject to lawsuits. 2) Then, it is increasingly portrayed as dangerous anti-system rhetoric. 3) Then, some killings happen at an anti-Trump rally which is met by pro-Trump protestors, perpetrated by someone who has by whatever means been exposed to rhetoric which roughly matches what everyone was all on about and, say, posted some links on Facebook relating to such rhetoric. 4) Algorithms start to be deployed to evaluate the statistical risk factors of people making certain type sof anti-system statements online, or attending certain types of democratic events. 5) Slowly slowly, you don’t even really notice it ever happened, and certain forms of non-violent political expression are being used to justify all manner of legal and extralegal treatment, from harassment by spooks and informal vigilantes to extended interrogation and imprisonment of people who make certain types of statements. 6) Slowly slowly, as this draws backlash and increasing numbers of people associated with such thinking stray into violence, the legitimacy of it all appears to increase. 7) Until, end of story, you get life in prison for saying the wrong thing. The first amendment is upheld, but these algorithmically guilty proto-terrorists are locked away for life.

The problem with the scenario is that it would not be possible to sustain even under the eventuality of a most powerful of Trump personality cults, due to checks and balances, etc. But there is no reason that a similar evolution could not occur with regard to specific ideologies, parties, etc.

It has happened before, it could happen again. Not in the West please. I enjoy my freedoms, but currently live in a country where, were I politically engaged, would face a system which is not oh so far removed from such a reality. I respect their sovereignty, but am dedicated to making sure it never happens at home. Slowly slowly, you won’t even notice.

10 JWatts March 21, 2016 at 12:42 pm

Wow, wall of text… but I did get this far.

“then presumably security agencies would too, perhaps with full tracking eventually becoming mandatory,”

Security agencies can already track via cell phones.

11 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 1:21 pm

Sorry, I have old fashioned views about what constitutes a paragraph. I understand that fonts on computers are not well-suited to such spacing and sometimes forget that bolds, underlines, etc. can stand in for the traditional paragraph.

Yes, they can already track via phones, but there is always the option to turn your phone off, say, if you’re on your way to a meeting with eco-terrorist granny knitting fundraisers in the hypothetical future where an algorithm could put you on a blacklist for such a thing. Given the theory that public transportation wouldn’t be needed in an era of self-driving cars, the main remaining options are walking or cycling. Using a little imagination, one could see how such activities could be portrayed in a suspicious light in a scenario which involved ubiquitous tracking of existing transportation options.

FYI – I tend to think through 1% probability scenarios. I don’t actually see all of this as the likely outcome, especially in the West, because I think we have some pretty well-entrenched systems that would make it difficult to go that way and a very large number of citizens who are “easily” engaged to prevent such things. But, it would all be pretty bad, so such 1% scenarios are still worth thinking about, and anyways sort of interesting to think about. I frame it as “getting comfortable with the 1 percents” in exercises of hypothesizing wildly about where things could go, while maintaining a firm grip on reality. Black swan events tend to be more common than standard cognitive tools are well equipped for, and in the modern world we do not benefit from evolutionary traits (except for intelligence) or new school moral teachings to support dealing with the types of black swans we could face in the coming generations.

12 JWatts March 21, 2016 at 1:41 pm

“Given the theory that public transportation wouldn’t be needed in an era of self-driving cars, the main remaining options are walking or cycling. ”

Why wouldn’t the logical option be to just pay for the self-driving car via pre-paid credit card? It’s the equivalent of turning your phone off.

Furthermore, jumping from a hypothetically ad supported taxi to dystopian hyper tracking state is a bit ridiculous. The US had ad supported TV networks for decades. The result wasn’t 1984.

13 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 3:24 pm

TV networks were not remotely trackable via any means. And, moroever, it’s more about tracking your location wherever you go than anything. There’s a difference between knowing that your TV is on (which they wouldn’t know anyways) than having the beginning and end address of every journey, allowing them to map out where/when you shop, eat, who you visit, etc., enabling them to establish a fairly complete profile on anyone with a few clicks of a mouse. At least when serious legwork is involved, they have to have good reason and there are accounting lines and warrants linked to the justification for the allocation of resources – I do not oppose the legitimate needs of security agencies, I advocate for an extensive papertrail, namely, accounting lines and warrants for every resource allocation.

Imagine, for example, with such information a partisan- or ideologically-driven plant in the security apparatus could pass on information to spooks who would strive to “figure you out” with whatever information they can accumulate about what matters to you, what you like and dislike, etc., and always have seemingly innocuous conversations nearby which are in fact crafted to screw completely with your head in any way they can imagine, with a minimum objective of intimidating you into not speaking or writing certain perspectives regarding certain policies, after having tried more subtle efforts to bring your thinking over to their side. “You’re a spy. There’s no choice.” … whatever “incriminating” things they could find to subtlely blackmail you, and failing to obtain any sufficiently incriminating evidence, try to lure you into self incrimination on something they think they could blackmail you with (doesn’t have to be illegal, so long as you might be mortally embarrased about it).

All you need is just a handful of plants with the right passwords among the many many thousands working in the security agency, and you’re already there. If you change habits accordingly, new information can be rapidly passed on to taunt you at whatever new haunts you try to establish – the only remaining option is to plan nothing, be spontaneous in everything, and you’ll be able to have some peace when you go out, unless you don’t turn your phone off and stay for too long. I doubt you would believe me, but I promise you it already happens. Plausible deniability is all anyone ever needs, and conveniently, anyone who speaks of such things is widely written off as a paranoid shizophrenic loon (cue confirmation of such views in 3, 2, 1 …).

Who? People who wanted me to believe that I was being punished for certain “sins” and wanted me to believe it was divine retribution from God (perhaps a diversion to point fingers in the wrong direction, but hey, I was raised Christian, son of two ministers and all, so why not try) and wanted me to reform to accept pro-eugenics anti-socialist ways of thinking, in addition to unquestioning subjugation to actors who purported to represent the “state”. I have really good arguments against eugenics-oriented “science”, can defend a variety of controversial socialist policies according to standard capitalist objectives, and widely and competently express the need for anti-systemic advice to be encouraged both within and outside the system. Someone wanted me to shut the fuck up and went to great lengths to do so. Only a plant with access to many spooks could have pulled that off (or, it gets deeper, but I seriously doubt any of that was so deeply institutionalized, although a few of the spooks seemed to legitimately believe so, presumably after having gone through similar experiences – slavery, if you will).

Thankfully, for people who wish to pretend that the world is a lovely place and no such things ever happen, you can just tell yourselves that I’m crazy. And you’ll believe it, because you want to. This is the reality we live in right now (well, I live in China now …).

Every non-digitally accessible activity I did was portrayed as a sign of legitimate suspicion which I was supposed to view as legitimizing all the shenanigans (understatement). They were trying to drive me into 100% digital connection because, duh, “they” (a plant) can and do track every last bit that is technologically feasible. How many plants do you need to pull that off? One. Anyways, I wrote letters far and wide and eventually it seems that something got figured out and I didn’t have any problems on my recent trip to Canada (you can tell yourself that this is a just a break from my schizophrenia if that makes the world feel like a safer place to you…)

How should a rational person respond to all that? “I wonder … this is just online and people say all sorts of nutty things … maybe it’s just someone with an agenda to smear something or other, but if anything like that were going on, I would want to know.”

Slowly slowly, you shouldn’t even notice while your thinking changes. But if you notice, and speak credibly about the experience (how many thousands of letters…) life is sure to take a turn for the worse. Crazy indeed!

I mentioned it here twice before in very short form, and Tyler deleted them both times. Why? Presumably he doesn’t believe the world could have things like that going on, knows some people will believe me, and doesn’t want to have anything to do with the spread of such patently “insane” stories.

Anyways, that’s all old news, and I’m still dedicated to learning about things that I’m interested in.

14 Alain March 21, 2016 at 11:21 am

“I see no reason why we won’t be able to have cars keeping track of their own locations rather than relying on GPS”

Well, no reason than ‘what’s the algorithm, Kenneth?’. And, further, what is the expense of this magic algorithm, and what is it accuracy? But you’re right, there’s no reason.

15 Lord Action March 21, 2016 at 11:33 am

I’m loath to come in and defend this, but an application that works by visually recognizing “Muriel’s house” and “where the old Shell station used to be” is not that far from reality. Nathan seems to be suggesting dead reckoning, which is almost surely unworkable, but there are reasonable approaches.

GPS navigation is easy, but knowledge- and sensor- based navigation would have a lot of advantages.

16 Alain March 21, 2016 at 2:22 pm

Oh, I figured that he was suggesting the visual system which is why I asked what is the expense and what is the accuracy. Such a system would likely be much higher energy cost per query than GPS, and to what benefit?

But it doesn’t matter to “I have no model Nathan”, it solves the issue he perceives.

17 Lord Action March 21, 2016 at 2:39 pm

I’m not sure he had anything clear in his mind. In a few years the energy cost of doing what I described will be negligible. One advantage over GPS is that it would be hard to turn off remotely. Another is that it is more context-aware than a set of coordinates could possibly be. Still another is that it isn’t reliant on satellites or antenna.

Are those overwhelmingly important reasons, such that GPS will go away? Of course not. But given that the alternative system will probably come for free with driver-assist technologies and mapping done for other reasons, I imagine it will have a place in the technological ecosystem.

18 Vaniver March 21, 2016 at 11:34 am

Nathan is probably thinking of something like recognizing the location from imagery–just like a person doesn’t use GPS to position themselves, a robot driver that has the Google Streetview equivalent of the entire world’s roadways in memory should be able to orient itself pretty easily once on the road.

But I’m not sure that would ever *supplant* GPS, given how cheap GPS is to include.

19 Nathan W March 22, 2016 at 1:35 am

Indexed markers every 500m transmitting their indexed location code would suffice. It would have somewhat higher capital costs but not be subject to problems in recognizing imagery.

GPS being cheap and already existing is definitely relevant though.

20 Turdley McPooh March 21, 2016 at 12:09 pm

This comment is a brilliant and pithy encapsulation of Nathan’s general bafflement. You guys are sweethearts for jumping to his defense.

21 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 12:30 pm

Enlighten me.

22 Turdley McPooh March 21, 2016 at 12:58 pm

Your errancy in the current discussion has been well and courteously settled by others. My own attempt might be less courteous, so I abstain.

23 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 1:24 pm

Given that no one actually knows precisely where the technology is going or well end up, there’s hardly anything “settled” in any respect whatsoever.

24 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 12:25 pm

The car could have a full mapping system (by the time they are ready, all that data will fit on something the size of your fingernail) and internally knows every bend of the road and important landmarks, keeping track of its own location at every step of the way. Cars could independently interact to prevent accidents according to whatever algorithms are developed, etc., and transmit willingness to nearby cars to form roadtrains on highways to save on fuel. With such a technology, there would never be any need to connect to GPS or any network at all, although presumably most users would remain connected to mobile networks (and thus implicitly trackable) on other devices if they so chose.

25 dan1111 March 21, 2016 at 12:35 pm

This is really problematic. Imprecision in all the systems means that error builds up all the time. For example, the accuracy of distance measurements would be affected by how much air is in your tires, how much play is in your steering, etc. What if you are on ice and skid around? On routes with very recognizable turns, the system might be able to self-correct, but there are lots of cases where it could get seriously off (very long straight road, large city with a grid arrangement).

Maybe a really smart algorithm, combined with some image recognition, could just about get usable results. But this adds absolutely nothing compared to a GPS chip that costs a few dollars.

Also, your suggestion seems predicated on the assumption that GPS can “track” you in a big brother sort of way, which is incorrect. The GPS satellites transmit information only. Devices like smartphones send your location via network connectivity.

26 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 12:46 pm

Dan – Thank you, I don’t know why I’m saying GPS (well, that’s where the original post started…). That was ignorant, and I perfectly well understand that GPS isn’t two-way whereas mobile connections can be tracked. I’m assuming a connected network rather than truly independent cars which only exchange information in the most localized of manners. In a networked situation, there is necessarily two-way transmission of information. While it seems that the capacity for mobile tracking is essentially entrenched, it would be good if such capacities did not proliferate into commonly used means of transportation.

Honestly, I don’t think Google et al. have gotten far enough for them to have strong views on how it will all be pulled off in the end – they are still working out very basic kinks in getting through city traffic in a handful of well-mapped areas and all the rest remains rather distant. I’m not a big fan of the “wait and see” approach with these technologies, as much as they are all very awesome at the same time.

27 too hot for MR March 21, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Hooooly smokes this is ripe. Nathan, you realize that having a map and orienting oneself on that map are different elements of navigation, no?

28 Axa March 21, 2016 at 12:28 pm

Nathan, I was just pointing at the author’s sentimentalism around the loss of navigation knowledge and reading a few lines later about how this knowledge was reserved only for few people. If you don’t want knowledge to disappear, share it with others.

29 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Only very peripherally related to what you said. Mostly working off of the “problem of relying only on a elite to guard knowledge”. Actually, I think you meant something rather different by that than the direction I took it in. The problem with internet conversations is that you can’t interrupt me the moment it’s that I’m wildly off into a tangent – but, then, sometimes it’s nice to be able to let the tangent run its course and so easily return to where you started, since it’s still right in front of your eyes.

In terms of concerns about losing knowledge, I know one digital hoarder who made it a priority to collect virtually every downloadable map on the net. It will very hard to lose much knowledge in the digital age, but it is not clear that it will always be put to good use and meanwhile, the ratio of misleading information and innuendo to actual information online seems to rise with every passing month. In aggregate, we there is obviously more high quality information than evern but on average, it might all make us dumber than we’ve been for a very long time.

30 mkt42 March 21, 2016 at 3:55 am

This would be a good article except that it utterly fails to inform the reader that Huth, the physics prof prominently featured in the article, has already written the book on this: “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way.” The article even copies (if this were an academic article I’d say it plagiarizes) one of the vivid examples in the book, where Huth was kayaking and a dense fog obscured everything but because he was familiar with the winds and tides he knew the general direction to go and how to navigate back to shore; that same afternoon a couple of college students got lost and died presumably from exposure or drowning.

Another big negative mark against the article: it fails to use the best word from Huth’s book: “wiwijet” == the Marshall Islanders’ term for both “disorientation” and “panic”.

The article does seem to cover recent events not covered in the book, but the book covers just about everything in this article (including the neuroscientists studying how rats navigate) plus a ton more.

31 carlolspln March 21, 2016 at 5:01 am

No wonder this article seemed familiar.

The book was good, if a bit rambling & ‘wooly’.

32 dan1111 March 21, 2016 at 5:35 am

Also, boo for referring to “recent studies” with no reference or identifying information whatsoever.

33 Todd Kreider March 21, 2016 at 7:18 am

But many experts agree that not specifying what the recent studies are does not diminish the overall entertainment value for the reader with such articles.

34 dan1111 March 21, 2016 at 7:20 am

No they do not. I checked every single one, and they universally disavowed this viewpoint. And more than a few said “It’s Todd Kreider again, isn’t it? Watch out for him, believe me!”

35 Rich Berger March 21, 2016 at 8:02 am

Now you’re talking!

36 Deek March 21, 2016 at 4:45 am

I once knew a girl who didn’t know where South America was: “I don’t need to know where it is, I just need to know how to get on the plane that takes me there.”

37 Rich Berger March 21, 2016 at 8:03 am

Who was she? Lauren Bacall?

38 Yancey Ward March 21, 2016 at 10:25 am


39 meets March 21, 2016 at 4:59 am

We also don’t know how to farm our own food or make fire.

We save our mental capacity for much more important tasks, such as Facebooking and Tweeting.

40 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 6:20 am

If there is ever a ginormous catastrophe of the sort that would destroy much of civilization in the first go (say, 90%+ in the first days, weeks or months), it will be all those ultra paranoid types who learned such skills – farming food or starting fires – in preparation who survive, in addition to nature freaks who also learned all those skills.

Assuming that genetic predisposition may drive such things (especially the more extreme forms of paranoia that would lead to such extensive advance planning), it’s hard to see how we’d reconstruct civilization – humanity would be left with those who inherently distrust any and all authority, people who value nature over material goods, and some remnants of previous civilization, who might be predisposed to accepting hierarchical relations and authority.

Ignoring that culture, experience and upbringing most likely play a critical role in shaping a lot of those attitudes and revealed preferences, it would be interesting to see a movie that played out such a theme on the basis of comparing the different strategies and cultures that would be produced from these different groups.

A few movies seem to have tried, but mostly the plotline is driven in the form of a resistance against the remnants of the military system – it would be nice to see how it played out of the remnants of the military were not made out to be bad guys, and instead evoked some sympathies and respect for the other groups (and not just on the part of the “good guy” who struggles to transform the militaristic system into something nice, but based on the premise that they try to stay essentially nice from the get-go – why does Hollywood always seem to assume that the military becomes supremely evil in a post-catastrophe scenario? Lots of really well meaning people go into the military too, and as a general rule, the military seems to have a lot less inclination to use violence than the politicians who often use them for political ends.)

41 Horhe March 21, 2016 at 7:14 am

Genetic drift and selection over time, after the effects of the apocalypse have been somewhat mitigated. We’d get a new crop of bleeding heart liberals in a few generations, especially if the most egregious forms of penury have been solved by then. Afterwards, all it takes is the redevelopment of the specific ideologies and voila. Also, let’s not forget regression to the mean. Just because a person is a hardcore survivalist doesn’t mean that his children will be as well (from a genetic standpoint, leaving aside nurture), especially if that person is an outlier in his own family. So, the survival of the one-off paranoid and prepared types will be a form of selection, but not as strong in the long-term as you would think, unless the harsh conditions will have been perpetuated for many hundreds and thousands of years to apply constant pressure.

42 Rich Berger March 21, 2016 at 8:08 am

Amen. A couple of generations at most before Little House on the Prairie turns into “You didn’t build that.”

43 Cliff March 21, 2016 at 9:51 am

Have you ever seen doomsday preppers? Most of them are not complete whack-jobs.

44 Lord Action March 21, 2016 at 9:55 am

Yeah, the difference between doomsday preppers and the guys on Bogleheads with 70% bond portfolios is more a matter or interest and aptitude than anything else. People have diverse risk preferences.

45 Urso March 21, 2016 at 1:06 pm

Very funny. On reflection, I do think prepping has some similarities with any group of hobbyists. Having the coolest & rarest set of vinyl is not that dissimilar from having the most well-stocked collection of canned food and ammo. Just a different crowd.

46 enoriverbend March 21, 2016 at 3:42 pm

“more a matter or interest and aptitude than anything else”

Absolutely. And there is some overlap. I mean, I know how to farm and hunt, and I’m pretty sure I am not the only one posting on MR that does, and I know a fair amount about asset allocation issues for a non-finance guy.

It seems the disdain for preppers is yet another one of those class-conscious divides. Having a lot of food preserved at home is abhorred in US rednecks* while if French peasant wives do the same thing, it’s sooo cute and, like, authentic and stuff.

*I am thinking here of my friends that smoke their own hams and make their own venison jerky, and can their own summer produce. On the other hand, anyone who seriously intends to one day start eating 1000 MREs voluntarily is perhaps not entirely sane, I will grant you that.

47 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 10:16 am

I quote myself: “especially the more extreme forms of paranoia that would lead to such extensive advance planning

I’m not painting them as whackjobs. They will be the future of humanity if such a thing ever comes to pass.

I personally know one, and he is very practical in discussing the need to preserve various forms of knowledge (hoards maths, sciences, engineering, computer programming, philosophy and diverse religious texts) in addition to practical challenges to maintaining basic order at the community level in such scenarios.

I also know a few Mormons who follow instructions to be prepared for disaster, but they do not go quite so far as to have the requisite 1-year of supplies on hand, because for practical purposes of ensuring the quality of emergency supplies, this implies rotating quite a lot of not-very-tasty food into your regular diet.

None of them prioritize guns. They prioritize knowledge and community structures.

48 Pshrnk March 21, 2016 at 9:57 am

You have explained the Fermi paradox.

49 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 10:28 am

Huh. Maybe. It was just a play off of who would have farming and fire making skills. I’m not a strong genetic predeterminist (duh, genes matter too – to stave off those who try to paint me as a blank slater), so I’m inherently skeptical. But … yeah, that would definitely bring down the odds of an extraterrestrial civilziation having visited yet even if many had gotten off the ground.

50 JWatts March 21, 2016 at 10:54 am

“We also don’t know how to farm our own food or make fire.”

“it will be all those ultra paranoid types who learned such skills – farming food or starting fires ”

Your average high school age Boy Scout or FFA member easily qualifies for this. It might be outside of your normal experience, but there are literally tens of millions of Americans who have basic survival skills that exceed this level.

51 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly March 21, 2016 at 11:12 am

I’m from the D.C. suburbs, and even I manage to be regularly shocked at just how aloof coastal urbanites can be about the day-to-day experience of the rest of the country. Every Minnesotan I’ve ever met–including plenty from the Twin Cities proper–has the necessary skills to hunt and forage for survival (at least for a little while).

52 The Original D March 21, 2016 at 7:00 pm

In a black swan apocalyptic event the most important thing a Minnesotan should know is how to get south before the winter comes.

Even in summer hunting and foraging would be a dead end. There’s not nearly enough biomass in the wild to support the population.

53 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Hope you have lots of matches.

54 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 12:54 pm

JWatts – I’m pretty comfortable for a decent period of time in “the wild”, say, a week, but I need to brings all my own supplies. I think this is roughly the norm for the vast majority of people with any amount of outdoors skills.

Bill – unless you’ve gone through those intensive survival camps (not me, but I know a few who have), it’s easy to overestimate you’re ability to pull it all off. Being much smarter than monkeys, however, I imagine a fair few could learn fast enough to make it.

55 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly March 21, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Without more information as to the specific type of disaster at hand, it’s really quite pointless to speculate on what proportion of humanity would be able to successfully adapt. Nuclear winter could irradiate fertile soil and render one’s farming knowledge irrelevant, or a plague could leave most of the infrastructure intact for society to reconstitute itself within a generation.

In the micro, though, nomadic subsistence living for the individual (or a small band of individuals) is really not that complicated–starting a fire without matches is much easier than you seem to believe (in the absence of matches, a lens, a battery, or a rock and flint all work fine as well), and a small group can live off the land in perpetuity without ever needing to rediscover the principles of agriculture (particularly if they are near an existing hunting goods store or other establishment with guns and ammo). It’s a tough, boring, and arguably pointless way to live, yes, but also simple and straightforward enough that cavemen pulled it off for thousands of years.

56 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 3:41 pm

I’ve watched a few videos on starting fires without any technological aides. It doesn’t look crazy hard, but it relies heavily on ideal environmental conditions, and if you’ve ever spent much time in the wilderness, you would know that nature is not always as cooperative as you might like. Also, you probably wouldn’t figure it out on your own.

In a sense, it might be better to survive a greater disaster than a lesser one, because population pressures in the short-term period before recovery of systems and knowledge integration would be lower. Canadians, for example, might wonder what they would do in the face of 50 million Americans coming north, bringing guns and violence in a quest for fertile unpolluted land with ample sources of water. What option would there be but to welcome them with open arms and work for the best possible outcome? Or we could shoot them all at the border … not a very human solution.

Anyways, I’m definitely an urbanite. None of that really applies to me. A reasonably responsbile five-year old can run a backyard garden with suitable instructions …

57 dan1111 March 21, 2016 at 5:09 am

“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”

Is this supposed to be a surprising finding? People who rely on a device that tells them where to go don’t know as much about how to get somewhere? What information to they think non-GPS people use to navigate?

Yet they follow it up with “paradoxically” and try to make it into a point about the virtues of getting lost.

58 charlie March 21, 2016 at 7:27 am

GPS isn’t the problem – maps are! They destroyed people’s brains back i in the 1800. We are all zombies now…

59 dan1111 March 21, 2016 at 7:58 am

Agreed. What will happen to society now that we have lost the ability to “turn left where the gas station used to be”?

60 The Original D March 21, 2016 at 7:01 pm

In North Korea most of the roads don’t even have names. Ergo they are much happier there.

61 Bliksem March 21, 2016 at 5:15 am

Cognitive scientists have been studying traditional navigation techniques used in Polynesia, Micronesia, etc for a long time. See e.g. Edwin Hutchins (1983) “Understanding Micronesian Navigation”, In Gentner and Stevens (eds) “Mental Models”.

62 Steve March 21, 2016 at 5:59 am

Eh, you can learn through mistakes and you can learn through repetition. After traveling a route with GPS a few times, I learn it enough to not need GPS. Traveling it more times unaided lets me learn it better, including landmarks.

Also, GPS is just an easier map. Same issues apply with maps.

The island navigation is interesting but I debunk the navel gazing.

A bigger issue to me is what happens if GPS goes on the fritz, either my device or the whole system. That’s why I keep paper maps in my car trunk.

63 Albigensian March 21, 2016 at 11:47 am

Two methods of navigating without GPS are (1) dead reckoning, using vectors and maps and (2) navigation by landmarks.

The first is something like “go 2 miles north on I-95 then one mile west on Rt 101 then three miles north-northwest on Ruby Road.

The second is “drive north until you see the red-brick school, then turn left and continue until you see the Home Depot store, then turn right and continue to destination.”

Dead reckoning with vectors is more robust, as even if you miss a turn you’ll know (more or less) where you are and where that is relative to where you want to go. Whereas if you miss a landmark you probably won’t know where you are by the time you realize you’ve missed it.

Both methods require building a mental map, but the map required for dead reckoning with vectors will at least be correctly proportioned. And one can, after all, always add landmarks to supplement this map.

Navigating with a GPS that provides turn-by-turn instructions is similar to navigating by landmarks but better, as it will recalculate as soon as you miss a turn, but, it does little to help the user build a proportional map (i.e. if the thing stops working you probably won’t know where you are, although you may remember the turn-by-turn instructions from a prior trip).

64 mkt42 March 21, 2016 at 3:28 pm

And this is where maps have the greatest navigational utility of all because the fastest easiest way to get a mental map of an area is by … looking at a paper map of the area. Or an electronic map in theory, but this is where GPS’s fall short. In theory one could look at the screen on a GPS and see a nice map of the area; in practice most people don’t use GPS’s that way.

65 Jon March 21, 2016 at 6:06 am

Occasionally I will try to navigate without GPS so I don’t lose the ability to use a map.

66 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 6:26 am

I’ve always feared reliance on GPS. I check Google maps for directions, write them down and take them with me. I’ve gotten lost (taken less direct routes) a few times when heading to some rural locations despite having clear directions, and sometimes have to stop at a gas station to make sure I’m still going the right way. But, I know that next time I will know my way better and will never fall into the trap of always relying on GPS and not actually knowing how to get anywhere if the system goes down for whatever reason.

As a child, 100% of the time I would be reading books if in the car or on the bus going anywhere. I was stunned when I realized that I didn’t even know how to find my way to places that I went to on a weekly or even daily basis. I think this primed me to be very attuned to the dangers of relying on something else to direct your every turn.

However, everyone else I know who drives uses GPS regularly and finds my views quaint. When the solar storm hits and knocks out all the GPS for a few weeks or months, or a variety of cyber attacks knock out both GPS and online mapping systems, who do you want behind the wheel?

Anyways, I also prefer the sense of exploration and finding your way to unknown places, and intrinsically prefer the old fashioned way to GPS, so it’s rather independent on any of the plausibly relevant paranoias mentioned above.

One of my favourite ways to explore a new city is to leave with a business card of the place you’re staying at, and just go wandering for many many hours. I’ve seen too many museums, old temples/churhces, galleries, old city markets, etc. in my time to really care about that stuff unless it’s one of the few dozen truly world class outfits. Far more interesting to explore random crap, watching for all the local differences and details, etc., perhaps stopping to ask random folks who seem to have time on their hands about such things. Disorientation is not stressful when you hold a return address and cash for a taxi home (or there’s an obvious nearby landmark you can always find your way), in fact, it is a wonderful thing.

You couldn’t get me to use GPS if it was 100% free, 100% accurate and easy peasy to use. It takes the spice out of life.

Oh, but sea navigation scares me. Wouldn’t do it WITHOUT GPS even if you paid me lots of money to do so. Risks on land are basically limited to wasting a few hours or getting mugged, not a long road into thirst, starvation and death. In canoeing Candian lake and river systems, a detailed map and regular verification of location is definitely critical. Again, GPS would completely destroy the sense of exploration and the satisfcation of successfully finding your way.

67 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly March 21, 2016 at 9:51 am

However, everyone else I know who drives uses GPS regularly and finds my views quaint. When the solar storm hits and knocks out all the GPS for a few weeks or months, or a variety of cyber attacks knock out both GPS and online mapping systems, who do you want behind the wheel?,/blockquote>

In the event of an apocalyptic event that knocks out all GPS, would you even know where to go–much less how to get there?

68 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 11:01 am

I would start knocking on doors to recruit people into a “keep chill, we’ll figure it out” community group. That’s my strategy as an urbanite who is otherwise utterly unprepared for such a tail end risk. I’m not smart enough to figure out the rest, but I would be supportive of community groups lobbying legislators, the police and courts to accept zero tolerance shoot-to-kill curfews to prevent the need for vigilantism and prevent home invasions and the like.

Keeping chill and mitigating the risk of falling into a widespread state of pandemonium would be utmost (in my experiences during the Egyptian revolution and Malian coup d’etat, it seems that people naturally understand this very rapidly – BUT, I don’t think most Westerners are familiar enough with adversity for it to take so easily). Authorities have got at least a year to plan, because any event that doesn’t wipe us out entirely on the spot leaves at least the current crop in the ground, albeit in some scenarios with a vastly reduced yield.

It would become a police state virtually overnight, and organizing massive daily protests which simultaneously support the police state and insist on its eventual dismantling would be critical to reducing the risk of the dystopian ending. As the rationale for upholding the police state disintegrates, the movement would naturally morph into ready-to-go mass demonstrations demanding a return to normaly.

Nuclear powers would have to double down on their willingness to finish the job, following the initial catastrophe, were any to seek to take advantage of the situation. MAD indeed. It works.

Any better ideas?

69 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly March 21, 2016 at 11:16 am

This is a non sequitur. You asserted your superior fitness to survive the apocalypse with your less-tech-reliant navigational skills; I rhetorically pointed out that those navigational skills are pretty useless in a world where disaster has struck and you have no reason to be confident about where to go, even if you know how to get there; and your response is about how to re-order society in the wake of the apocalypse.

One of these things is not like the other.

70 too hot for MR March 21, 2016 at 12:28 pm

See his comment above about cars/maps/GPS. His enthusiasm for typing is unmatched by his processing power.

71 Nathan W March 21, 2016 at 12:59 pm

You asked if I would know where to go. I responded, saying I wouldn’t go anywhere. Was that not directly following through on your implied point, now stated clearly?

But, if you need to drive to the next town or to any major city with more than 100,000 population across the entire country, I still know how to get there without a map let alone GPS (mostly, drive straight for a long time and watch for signs). Also, “fitness” is a genetic principle. This is merely learned stuff.

72 chuck martel March 21, 2016 at 6:32 am

What kinda maps? Most maps delineate political divisions and roads with their attendant signage, neither of which is useful in most circumstances where finding one’s way is important. Contour maps, on the other hand, allow one to relate to geographical features and determine a position in relation to them, should one actually be able to use them. Observing and understanding physical clues is the best way to navigate, even if maps are available.

73 rayward March 21, 2016 at 6:36 am

Disorientation is stressful. Anybody who ever suffered vertigo will understand. I met two sailors six or seven years ago when I took my Godson and his friends to a paintball place for his birthday. The sailors were crewmen on a nuclear submarine stationed at the nearby nuclear submarine base. It surprised me to learn that when a nuclear submarine is at sea it rarely if ever comes to the surface. It also surprised me to learn that, with the exception of the captain and navigator, nobody on board knows where they are going, where they have been, or where they are. The sub could be off the coast of Africa or off the coast of Australia and they wouldn’t know the difference. Talk about disorientation. And vertigo. I once knew a man who had been a pilot, flying transports across Canada. He told me that on one especially dark night, so dark he couldn’t tell the difference between up and down, he suffered vertigo and came close to losing the aircraft, his many hours of experience flying instruments (IFR) saving him and his crew from disaster (fixating on the instruments rather than the black space in front). During periods of rapid cultural or economic changes, when people don’t know where they are going, they too suffer disorientation and a form of vertigo, often responding in (self) destructive ways. Maybe somebody should invent a GPS for that.

74 rayward March 21, 2016 at 6:53 am

I’m a guy, which means I am visual. If I am driving to a place I’ve never been before, I will look at a map to get an orientation of where it is in relation to where I am. It works! I will drive right to my the destination without a problem. On the other hand, if I don’t have a map and have to rely on oral instructions (two blocks and turn left at the light, six blocks and turn right and the convenience store, etc.) I will drive round aimlessly for hours. Wives and girlfriends often criticize men for refusing to stop and ask for directions. There’s a very good reason: for someone visual, it’s useless. The map cures disorientation; oral instructions are just gibberish.

75 TMC March 21, 2016 at 8:44 am

I’m the same way, but I need to picture the route as I’m told where to go.

76 mkt42 March 21, 2016 at 3:36 pm

Yes, it’s the same principle that those competitive memorizers use: build a memory palace because human memory is very good at remembering where things are located relative to each other. I.e. just as we have a language instinct, we are hard wired to have a mapping instinct — and those neuroscientists discovered that rats are too.

So I take those verbal instructions and build an image of a map with them. Problems arise of course if I assume that the left turn is a 90 degree left turn, or if I miss a turn and assume that three right turns will be the equivalent of that one left turn. Works great in Manhattan; works terribly in Boston or Pittsburgh.

77 Baphomet March 21, 2016 at 7:19 am

I believe that apart from visual cues, there are also other ways of telling up from down.

78 Lord Action March 21, 2016 at 10:06 am

Not in a blind aircraft. You can’t tell the difference between an accelerating frame of reference and a gravitational field.

Well, expect by playing tricks with gravity models and memory like an INS does, but people can’t do that for any length of time.

79 Albigensian March 21, 2016 at 11:58 am

That’s what pilots said in the 1920s. Until they found themselves in a death spiral upon exiting a cloud and realized that it wasn’t so.

You’ll still feel as though you’re upright in an airplane that is in a steeply banked (but coordinated) turn. Which is why pilots are taught to always trust their instruments over their intuitive kinesthetic perceptions.

80 mkt42 March 21, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Yes, one of the early hypotheses (I don’t know if it was ever proven) was that JFK Jr. crashed his plane doing exactly this.

81 a Fred March 21, 2016 at 5:53 pm

My father taught Link trainers during WW2. He said that it was almost entirely a matter of teaching the pilots to trust the instruments over their sensed orientation.

82 Rich Berger March 21, 2016 at 8:12 am

My wife always want me to put the exact destination in the Maps app and doesn’t like me Exploring.

83 dan1111 March 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

I find that “getting there is half the fun” is a great opening to a spousal discussion on why you are lost 🙂

84 srw March 21, 2016 at 8:54 am

I don’t see how this is any different than any of the zillions of other things that people used to do but now computers or machines do. We become less good at that thing, and spend our time and effort on other things (until machines start doing that new thing better than people too).

85 anon March 21, 2016 at 10:54 am

Related: Our Reliance on Technology Makes the Backcountry More Dangerous

I actually blame attitude more than tech, but many tell me that it is tech making the attitude.

86 Ethan Bernard March 21, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Yes, this is like lamenting the decline in memory supposedly caused by literacy. Let us use our minds for more important things.

87 RPLong March 21, 2016 at 9:35 am

This is old news. Stories were coming out years ago about how reliance on GPS reduces our “mental mapping” ability. I try to get by without my GPS as much as possible. I use it only when I need to get somewhere that I’ve never been before, and I have a time constraint.

88 too hot for MR March 21, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Concur. It’s like the hysterical stories of the late 1990s about the part of our brain atrophying that used to remember people’s phone numbers. Of course now it’s probably tied up with login credentials and the like.

I’m a pilot and love the introduction of the glass cockpit. I also still enjoying flying steam-gauge planes, and somehow manage to make it home despite myself.

89 anon March 21, 2016 at 9:48 am

Yesterday, in a related conversation, we wondered when kids would stop learning to drive. I wiggled the car in some S’s, and said “driving is fun.” Kids in the back seat agreed. My “navigator” less so.

90 JWatts March 21, 2016 at 11:03 am

“we wondered when kids would stop learning to drive.”

When Dad is paying the insurance bills and realizes the teenager with a driver’s license costs hundred of dollars per month more than the kid without .

91 mkt42 March 21, 2016 at 3:41 pm
92 anon March 21, 2016 at 9:53 am

We thought that the 11yo would have to know how to drive, but would possibly never pump gas. “You have to pump it?”

93 Lord Action March 21, 2016 at 10:10 am

11 is too old. Most of the cars that will be on the road when he is 17 are already on the road today. Even if you’re family is all-electric, he’ll rent a car, drive his friend’s car, etc. 1 year old and maybe you have a case.

94 Lord Action March 21, 2016 at 10:11 am

You’re -> your.

I am incapable of getting that right.

95 anon March 21, 2016 at 9:59 am

A little science on how brains navigate:

My belief is that people who take those mental snapshots, naturally, or as a developed technique, do much better.

When I say “I never get lost” I am kinda joking, but actually very confident.

96 Nick Lewendon March 21, 2016 at 10:13 am

Doesn’t this somewhat contradict someone’s opinion that people who excel at working with (and relying on) computers will prosper?

97 Lord Action March 21, 2016 at 10:32 am

Yes, it’s pure nostalgia. It’s like those people out there arguing for cursive.

98 derek March 21, 2016 at 10:35 am

This is a pet peeve of mine. In my industry I’m inundated with offerings of software with mapping function, usually the small screen on my phone filled with a map and pointer to where I am.

I know where I am.

I want the stupid thing to tell me what I don’t know. Does it know where I am? Great, then tell me what I need to know about the client I’m about to see. Or log my time sheet. Etc.

Or is this an indication of the norm, out of which come the developers of the software, that they actually don’t know where they are unless a device tells them?

99 Pshrnk March 21, 2016 at 11:10 am

How good will my map drawing be after I ride to a location in my self driving car?

100 JK Brown March 21, 2016 at 6:03 pm

Use, but never trust the magic box. It can lead you astray as it only knows where it is (GPS) and only has a facsimile of reality in the computer. As I tried to teach the junior officers, always look out at the big video playing outside the windows.

But GPS can be spoofed, it can be interfered with, it can suffer from a faulty antenna, and it can even have bad satellite geometry (although no so much in the mid-latitudes these days) and the maps in the box can wrong.

101 Rob42 March 22, 2016 at 11:08 am

“this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going”

Probably not really a relevant point, but I suspect the difference has more to do with the amount on concentration spent on thinking about where you’re going when driving without GPS versus with GPS than it has to do with actual mistake making, i.e. it is the effort spent on avoiding mistakes than the consequences of making mistakes that lead to understanding and retention of the area’s geography.

102 JD March 22, 2016 at 11:31 am

Personal preference here, but for backpacking I like to rely on a topo map, a compass & a pedometer (retired my “Ranger Beads” for keeping pace count). I find that it makes me more mindful of my location, my route and the surrounding landscape. However, I do take an old hand-held GPS along to check my work from time to time.

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