My Week Without Interactive Digital Maps

Illustration by Charlie Powell

This post arises from a Slate Plus “member takeover,” in which Slate Plus members voted on what tech service Lily Hay Newman should give up for seven days. Join Slate Plus to vote in future Member Takeovers.

I would say that I have a mediocre sense of direction. I’m not the one who correctly pulls “Oh wait, it’s this way!” out of nowhere, but I can be trusted to get myself and others from A to B if someone needs to take charge. When Slate Plus readers voted that I should give up Google Maps for a week, though, I was worried. I suspected that I used the service even more often than I realized. And I was right.

Over the last seven days I’ve frequently asked for directions, wandered around, and wasted a lot of time. And I’ve realized that I use digital mapping services a lot, especially Google Maps and especially on mobile. So giving them all up (including my subway map app) was definitely a challenge.

The big thing I realized from my Google Maps purge is that I use maps services for brainstorming, not just directions. I’ll look at the place I’m going even if I already know where it is, so that I can also preview the surrounding area. For example, one night I went to a restaurant near Herald Square, and as I walked past a GAP clothing store, I realized that I should have brought the jeans I needed to return. But I wasn’t thinking about GAP when I pictured the restaurant’s location in my head. Even sadder, it turns out there was also a gelato place nearby that I didn’t find out about until later.

Another thing I noticed is that people are almost always really nice about giving directions—unless they also see you using your smartphone. If I was texting outside a store and then went in to ask for directions, I could feel the unspoken question, “Why don’t you just check on your phone, moron?” I tried working in explanations about my smartphone battery being dead, but that sometimes backfired when people graciously offered me their chargers. By the end of the week, I was stashing my phone out of sight and claiming that I had lost it. Who knew that giving up maps for a week would turn me into such a liar?

Also—and I’m not sure if this is because of our increased reliance on mapping services—most people seem to be pretty bad at giving directions. They wanted to be helpful, but they gave vague descriptions, called out poor landmarks, or just sent me to the wrong place entirely. For example, it’s not very specific to say that something is “across the street from Grand Central,” because Grand Central is a pretty big place. Knowing that I was embarking on this experiment, I had printed out a bunch of NYC maps in anticipation of inevitable problems. But they weren’t as helpful in cases where my plans changed at the last minute while I was already in transit.  

I’ll be honest with you: There was one time when I asked a friend to look something up in their Google Maps app for me. I’m not proud of violating the sacred mission of the Slate Plus Member Takeover in this way. But sometimes you’re standing on a street corner, it’s pouring rain, you’re soaked, your printed map is soaked, and you just need to know where to go. I didn’t look at those sweet, precious directions, though. I made my friend describe the route to me. And without even realizing it she reprimanded me for cheating on my Member Takeover: “Why don’t you just check it yourself?”