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Google Maps Has Changed How We Remember Space

Electronic mapping systems are altering how our spatial memories function, with real world implications

Credit: NurPhoto/Getty Images

GGoogle Maps was released just after I turned 10 years old in the winter of 2005. Before that, it was paper maps or printed MapQuest directions for my family. (Who remembers that era?) I didn’t start using Google Maps regularly until I went to college in 2013. Even then, it was mostly limited to vacations in places I had never visited before. I never used Google Maps to guide me through familiar places.

I took a trip back to my hometown back in September, for the first time in more than two years, and it was like stepping back in time — but not quite.

I couldn’t remember what time the local grocery store closed, so I went to Google Maps to look for open grocery stores — my first approach in any unfamiliar place. When my phone loaded the blue dot overlaid on the white streets, I didn’t know what to do.

I didn’t recognize where I was — didn’t know how to find the grocery store I could walk to in my sleep — because I literally had never looked at my hometown from this vantage point. The streets I had spent more than a decade and a half wandering were completely unfamiliar to me because I had never seen them from this perspective.

My old spatial and physical memories of my hometown seem to be drifting away.

Electronic mapping systems have changed how we navigate and remember space

When I was a child, a variety of paper maps — mostly from AAA or Rand McNally — lived in the trunk of the family car. We almost never embarked on a road trip without a set of printed MapQuest directions to supplement this. I read the directions aloud to them every few hours, but most of the time I spent hours looking out the window, watching the two-lane highway speed by. I still remember what the exit from the highway to my grandparents’ house in Maine looks like, and how the swamp at the bottom of the hill leading to their house transformed over the years.

Nowadays when I arrive in a new city — permanently, like my post-college move to Seattle or temporarily, like my trips to Phoenix or Atlanta — I pull out my phone and use Google Maps to get around. I may be standing in the middle of a busy section of town and I’m still likely to use my phone to find a restaurant that looks good to me.

Partly this is for convenience — it’s easier to scan closing times and menus from my phone than it is to wander around for half an hour reading all the menus on the windows, especially when I’m hungry. But I experience space very differently because of this. My memories of Phoenix, for example, are centered around the herbal shops and restaurants where I spent my time and I remember next to nothing about the journey to any of these places. This is because I was navigating based on a digital map rather than some combination of a paper map, my memory, and clues in the physical space. I spent far less time taking in the street signs, the shadows of the mountains, and the people moving around me than I did trying to figure out where my next left turn was.

There’s lots of research that backs this up. Writing in the design and transportation magazine CityLab, Eric Jaffe notes how differently people acquire spatial knowledge when using digital navigation devices versus paper maps. It’s clear that technology as a whole alters what we remember — Facebook remembers birthdays for us, digital calendars keep track of birthdays and appointments, and we can retrieve this information in a matter of seconds — but it’s also clear to me that technology alters how we remember as well.

How I remember Seattle, WA — a top-down, Google-maps-based image. Credit: Google Maps

Remembering with the help of images that don’t exist in the real world

When I think of Seattle, where I spent the first two years of my fully independent adult life, it’s from above, through a lens that I would only get from Google Maps — a map of streets represented as white lines, oriented north to south with the names of various neighborhoods superimposed over the correct regions.

This Seattle doesn’t exist in real-life. The Seattle that exists in real-life is rainy and beautiful, with stunning mountain ranges crouching on the horizon nearly every direction you look and significant bodies of water within a 30-minute drive from wherever you are in the city.

But when I think about my time spent in the city, the very first image that comes to mind isn’t the natural beauty of the area, or the crows that seem to be everywhere, or even the offices I spent two years working in. It’s that impersonal, gray-and-white, top-down map of the area.

Contrast that with my memories of my childhood town, in rural Massachusetts. I remember that town as winters with snow drifts as tall as I was, and the beautiful droopy weeping willow in the backyard of my childhood home. To this day, six years since I last lived there, I know exactly how long it takes to drive to the grocery store, the layout of the maze of roads that stretches back behind my house, the layout of the college campus in town, and when which buildings lock up for the night.

But I have absolutely no clue where anything is on a digital map.

What does this change mean for the future?

It was strange to return to my hometown for the first time in two years, but stranger still was the experience of relearning the space I grew up in as if I had never seen it — which, in a way, I hadn’t.

Now that I’ve used Google Maps to figure out what time the grocery store closes, and searched for an Indian restaurant on my phone when I couldn’t find it on a first look around the neighborhood, I’m finding these digital memories are more readily accessible when I think about that area. My old spatial and physical memories of my hometown seem to be drifting away, even though I spent 18 years navigating without technology.

This makes me wonder about the future. How will our memories come to rely on this type of assistance as we move forward? The way we interact with space changes with every technological step forward we take — one needs only to look at recent advances in mixed reality or virtual reality to see proof of how distance can be narrowed and social interactions can change with the onset of this type of tech. It only makes sense that our memories will change as well, but to what end?

Before I started using Google Maps, I was really good at space.

If the very way we navigate the physical world has become more impersonal, what does this mean for the way we treat that world, for example? If we don’t recall the little details of our surroundings that can make them so beautiful, how are we to look back on our experience of that space with any sort of fondness?

So things have changed… what now?

Before I started using Google Maps, I was really good at space. I could remember the names of streets, bus stops, and directions to a friend’s house I hadn’t visited in years. I could navigate for hours using printed maps or MapQuest directions. Since I’ve begun to rely on Google Maps, I can walk down a street watching the blue dot that is me move towards where I’m meant to “turn left on Spring street” — even though that’s a turn I’ve made many thousands of times — on my own feet, a bike, a bus, or a car.

This change isn’t necessarily bad or good. It just is. It’s important to be aware that it’s happening, more than it is to make any kind of moral judgment on it.

My recent visit to my hometown, and the recognition of the change in the way I navigate in the world that came with it, did, however, give me a fresh appreciation for my friends who refuse to use Google Maps for a place they’ve already been — even if it was only once. While we may get lost far more often, we also experience the world in the moment in a way I haven’t really been able to since I was a child. And that is something worth remembering.

Speculative fiction and Afrofuturist writer. Software engineer. US-based; globally oriented. I think and write about building new worlds.

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