Michael Bettencourt

The Marvelous Mar铆a Beatriz and I use Waze all the time when we travel. It's never failed us yet, we have our favored voices (right now it's Sara, but we're fond of Jane as well), and it's only gotten more sophisticated over time. (We hardly use many of its services, such as playing music, editing maps or recording our own voices for prompts, but we know they're there.)

Years ago, I read an article by a cartographer bemoaning the rise of services like MapQuest because they privileged getting directions over reading a map, the author arguing that many people now equated the two, which only undercut their understanding of what maps are and what maps do.

I can understand his frustration. Something similar has happened in the generational differences in telling time, where some have difficulty using an analog clock because they're so used to referring to digital readouts.

But I also think back to those oh-so-halcyon days when one would stop at a gas station to pick up maps and then plot out a route through the state, then switch to the city map to continue the tracing, then stopping multiple times to ask other gas station attendants or people on the street how to get to an address, quickly memorizing how many rights and lefts and intersections it would take to get there (and invariably not remembering them accurately, requiring more stopping and asking).

Now, there were some advantages from that old process. It made me (and whoever else was traveling with me) use the spatial areas of our brains, exercise our memories, finetune our fine motor skills, hone our conversational skills with strangers—in short, embedded us in the reality of what we were doing and made us take accountability for our actions: success was in our hands, and it was up to us to figure out how to achieve it.

And the library of maps stuffed into the glove compartment or the sidepockets of the doors or thrown into the back seat testified to where I had been and might yet go, a tactile reminder of journeys past, present and future.

Of course, I need to add in the unpleasant anxiety of not really knowing where I was and what I was doing as I followed my sketchy memory of someone's hand gestures and hurried words, the sinking feeling that comes from being lost and not having a clue about how to dig a way out (and perhaps having to look for a payphone—a payphone!—to call for help).

But overall, there was a palpability to the old-timey use of maps that, while mixed in its benefits and hurdles, nevertheless gave me a sense of being in the flow of life—the creases in the maps (and the tricky way of re-folding them that I never quite mastered), the anxious sweat of trying to arrive, the relief at arriving and the pleasure of the welcome.

With Waze, none (or at least very little) of that, tangibility of a sort traded in for something like magic (as is the case with any non-understood technology, per Arthur C. Clarke): signals from my phone bouncing off invisible satellites processed by servers somewhere coming back to me with a simple instruction to take this exit or that street and announcing that I have arrived at my destination.

I have not, however, ditched the maps. Waze is an added tool to the cartography because there is still the need for and pleasure of looking at a map to see where I am on the earth and to see the relationship of this place with that place, something that Waze can't really give me. Waze will give me the turn-by-turn choreography to drop me off in front of the restaurant or friend's house or rural pick-your-own apple orchard. But the map gives me the concentric circles rippling out from where I am pinpointed, making an offer of the outward stretch of the world around me (the same thing happens when handling a globe) while not losing the hub of who I am because each of us, after all, is the center of the universe.


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, Mar铆a-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2022 Michael Bettencourt
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt April 2016 | www.scene4.com


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