Directionally Challenged

The old yarn about women nagging a lost husband to stop driving round in circles and ask for directions is becoming increasingly irrelevant in a GPS-powered world. While a built-in navigation system may still be prohibitively expensive, the downward cost spiral of GPS radios has ensured that they are embedded in many mobile phones or are sold as portable navigation devices that adorn the windscreens of automobiles.

Although the global positioning system was developed by the United States Department of Defense for military applications, the technology can now be used freely by anyone-- for scientific (cartography), commercial (CDMA time-synchronisation) or civilian (navigation) purposes. While the use of GPS for navigation has made driving to an unknown location much less of a chore, it has taken away the thrill of pre-planning and the visceral connection with paper maps, besides pushing websites like MapQuest to obsolescence.

Others argue that the dependence on GPS units has led to drivers becoming less aware of their surroundings (missing the wood for the trees), and it is not uncommon to be unable to recall what route had been taken to reach a particular destination. Only time will tell if this has a long-term effect on a human being’s sense of direction, which is surprisingly underdeveloped compared to many animals, birds and insects.

This may not have always been the case. Spatial cognition is remarkably powerful among the Kuuk Thaayorre aboriginal tribe of northern Australia. Not only are they always conscious of the four cardinal directions, but they use absolute (rather than relative) terms in their everyday language. So a Kuuk Thaayorre at a dinner-table is quite likely to say, “Please pass me the dish that is at the north-north-west far end.”

Researchers at Stanford University have recently published an interesting study on how language shapes the way people think. Based on data collected from around the world, they conclude that elements of grammar (whether inanimate objects or verbs are gender-sensitive, as in Russian or some Indian languages) or the idea of time has a bearing on one’s cognitive performance. For instance, the English-speaking world uses horizontal spatial metaphors to represent time (“the best is ahead of us”) , while time is represented by vertical metaphors in Mandarin (tomorrow is a “down-day”, while yesterday is an “up-day”). Similarly, duration of time is referred to by length in English, but by amount in Greek (“long meeting” vis-à-vis “big meeting”).

Interestingly, the connection between time and distance was invoked using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by Percival Wilde in his adaptation of Fritz Karinthy’s play “The Refund”. The plot revolves around a smart but jobless man returning to his old school and demanding a refund for not being taught anything that would equip him for the real world. He offers to subject himself to an examination to prove his ignorance, and the teachers unite against him to justify all his answers as intelligent and correct, however contrived or nonsensical they may be (“the Thirty Years’ War lasted seven metres long”). Of course, if the play had been set in America (instead of Hungary), the protagonist could have simply hired a lawyer to advise him-- their moral compass rarely deviates from the road to riches.


I keep travelling around the bend
There was no beginning, there is no end
It wasn't born and never dies
There are no edges, there is no size.
But if you don't know where you're going
Any road will take you there.

George Harrison, Any Road


Altamont said...

Very interesting post. Have not blogged for almost a year now - but do want to resume now.

Anonymous said...

An interesting article in the Wall Street Journal that is relevant to this essay: