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Without mental maps, we’re lost, geographer says

Geographer Keith Elwood was delivering cupcakes for his wife’s café the other day when he realized he let his GPS do all the thinking. “When I arrived, I realized I had no idea where I was,” he said, laughing at the irony.
Keith Elwood describes GPS as a flexible tool that is here to stay. But becoming too dependent on technology isn't necessarily a good thing, he says.

Geographer Keith Elwood was delivering cupcakes for his wife’s café the other day when he realized he let his GPS do all the thinking.

“When I arrived, I realized I had no idea where I was,” he said, laughing at the irony. He was in the Maplewood neighbourhood of Saanich, but he felt disconnected from the journey.

“I’m the thinking geographer,” Elwood said. “By handing off the task of navigation to technology, we are becoming passengers and we’re not in the driver’s seat anymore.”

On Saturday, the affable Oak Bay geographer is speaking at TEDx Vancouver at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. TED talks are condensed live or video presentations on big subjects.

Elwood was a senior geographer working on the ground-floor of the very global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) he will throw up for discussion in his TEDx talk.

His question: Are we surrendering our innate mental map making abilities to technology and relying on and trusting it too much? And for TEDx audiences only, he’ll toss out ideas on ways to prevent that from happening.

People have a tendency to take for granted that we are all map makers and navigators, Elwood said. Thousands of generations of evolution have helped us create unique and personalized maps in our minds that guide us and play a role in our survival, he said..

Each day we make mental maps, recording landmarks and building environmental cues into our landscape, he said.

“It’s so obvious that we tend to keep it at the subconscious level until we reach that most primal fear of being lost,” he said.

Elwood describes GPS as a magical and flexible tool that is rightly here to stay. It’s available on our smartphones and comes in new cars. It can be purchased and plunked on a dashboard.

But just as technology gives, it can bite back, he said.

There are numerous stories, from the humorous to the tragic, of how people have let their GPS devices override their common sense or natural navigational skills to drive down airport runways, logging trails and deserted roads, sometimes at their peril.

“What’s working just under the surface are those concepts of automation bias, that make us believe in the machine’s authority, even if it’s contradicting our own [beliefs],” Elwood said. “If we completely hand over [our abilities] to the machine, then we will have consequences if there are any failures at all — whether it’s the battery running out or the database being wrong.”

He shares the story of how his father — a former army sergeant, boy scout leader, outdoorsman, sailor and respected navigator — tried to drive his Toyota Camry down a road in the woods so far that he needed to be towed out. His GPS had guided him there.

In the span of just one generation, we could cheerfully surrender the ability to build, nurture and use the personal mental mapping and navigation abilities that the human race has had for hundreds of thousands of years, Elwood said.

“The challenge is how do we make the technology more like our mental maps and how do we become partners with that technology so that our mental maps aren’t forgotten along the way,” Elwood said. “We need to find a way with the tools and our own contributions to put ourselves back in the driver’s seat.”

Elwood was a senior geographer with the U.S. Bureau of the Census, assisting in building the first nationwide digital map database, and worked on Geographic Information Systems in the private sector. In 1995, he took a sabbatical to live in Victoria, raise his family and start consultancy work.

Today, he consults for technology firms.

And from time to time he helps with his wife’s business, Crumsby’s Cupcake Café, in Oak Bay, jumping in his car, with his GPS, or not, and delivering desserts.

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• For more information about other speakers — including Terry Pearson, professor in the department of biochemistry and microbiology at the University of Victoria — at Saturday’s TEDx event in Vancouver, go to