Tech is Sedating Us, Warn Navigation Experts

Our increasing dependence on smartphones and satellite positioning systems is leading to a loss of practical skills and self reliance, according to the Royal Institute of Navigation, and threatening the very future of map and compass navigation.

Mobile Phone, 47 kb
Is excessive gadget use rotting our brains? Photo Alan James

Society is becoming “sedated by software”, reckons Roger McKinlay, president of charitable 'learned society' the Royal Institute of Navigation.

'It is concerning that children are no longer routinely learning at home or school how to do anything more than press ‘search’ buttons on a device to get anywhere' he said.

'Many cannot read a landscape, an ordnance survey map, or find their way to a destination with just a compass, let alone wonder at the amazing role astronomy plays in establishing a precise location.'

'Instead, generations are now growing up utterly dependent on signals and software to find their way around.'


'But much more is being lost. Traditional navigation skills encourage independent thought based on calculation and self-reliance, and have throughout history. Fortunately, Captain Cook did not wait for a sat nav signal to reach South East Australia.'

Aboriginal Australians might disagree with the example he offers, and yet there's a serious point behind it: that society's reliance on technology is eroding our more fundamental abilities to orient ourselves in a landscape. Is he right?

Appalling vis but he's pinpoint accurate over several kms, no gadgets required, 97 kb
Appalling vis but he's pinpoint accurate over several kms, no gadgets required
© Dan Bailey

'Global positioning satellites are a great innovation, but they are turning course setting by instrument and calculation, which has guided how civilisation developed, into little more than a heritage talent' said McKinlay.

Yet even the most high tech gadgets have their flaws, he points out:

'As anyone who has struggled to get a signal, or wondered why their sat nav has turned them ‘left’ when ‘right’ was plainly correct knows, technology cannot always be relied upon.'

The institute wants UK schools to teach basic navigation as a way to develop 'character', independence and an appreciation of maths and science.

'It is [...] hard to escape the view that one reason navigation skills are not taught is that it takes people from a controllable classroom, indoors, to the world outside' said McKinlay.

'There is a wider issue than navigation here. Our view is that reliance on computers presents no conceptual challenges.'

'The human brain is left largely inert and untaxed while calculations are made electronically, by a software ‘brain’ without the elasticity to make connections and judgements.'

Fundamentally, according to the Institute, 

'The trained human brain is infinitely better in a crisis at working out a sensible route and taking in all relevant data, such as weather and terrain.'

To pick up the basics of real old fashioned navigation these UKH/UKC skills articles are a good place to start:



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