Maps have been around a lot longer than the United States Department of Defense Global Positioning System (GPS). Cartography, or map-making, goes back thousands of years.
Map reading may someday become a lost art, especially for people born in the 1990s and later. GPS is a bit older than that, but commercial products for it didn’t start appearing until after the Persian Gulf War of 1991. I was a involved in that war. It was the first time I saw GPS devices being used by the military to get around in the Sahara Desert.
Most people are familiar with Google Maps but if I’m not mistaken, MapQuest was first. It’s the first online map service I can remember using. Nowadays I use Google Maps, naturally.
The online map services have the same faults as GPS services and it could be because some of the data they use comes from GPS services. I’m just guessing, of course. If you ask for driving directions and depending on the service, you can get results that seem to come straight out of a 1970s video game: “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”
Sometimes a few straight lines, even if the distance is greater, is faster than turning left and right a bunch of times. Think of expressways and you can understand where I’m coming from.
It happens, though, and it’s usually because the maps are wrong. Or vague. I once got lost looking for an address in North Carolina. The street address was a building. Good luck finding it on any of the local maps. If I hadn’t flagged down a police officer, I never would have found it.
I once listened to some back-seat drivers while I was on a trip to Los Angeles. They were using a portable GPS device. I knew what route to take but they swore the GPS device had a better route. They were so annoying, I missed my exit and I had to drive an extra 20 miles to get on track again. Reading signs is way easier than trying to follow GPS directions.
Even though most of the world has already been mapped in one way or another, there are still areas where maps don’t exist. The middle of a desert without any highways or roads nearby is one example. In fact, that example would probably apply to any place without geographical markers of any kind.
You can still get lost with GPS services. It’s rarer than getting lost with maps, but I don’t know how much rarer. I’ve never used a GPS service for anything. One of my in-law’s recently got lost trying to find a place in Caloocan City, in metro Manila. He was using a GPS service on his cell phone. What should have taken around four hours ended up taking seven.
Originally published in April of 2016. Updated for readability and minor error corrections.