September 20, 2012

Road Maps and Social Context

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

I recently went on a weekend road trip and didn’t even think to bring paper maps. I had a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a smart phone, so I wasn’t completely unprepared. The devices told us how to get to our destination, and where the nearest restaurants and gas stations were. But when we were trying to decide whether to take small excursions, the tiny screens couldn’t give us much context.clip_image002

Before the advent of these handy electronic devices I would pour over maps before a trip to an unknown region to get a sense of distance, maybe its topography, and where places are in relation to others in the area.

While heading to a place known for its sand dunes, I set the GPS to the coordinates listed on a web site. We got there to find that was a place for ATVs and dune buggies to drive on the beach; we were looking for a place to walk around, and the coordinates clearly led us to the wrong place for a beach walk.

clip_image004Because some of our destinations were so far apart, they were hard to see on a small screen at once, and when we could the small image removed any semblance of scale. Understanding the context of a location involves getting an appreciation for where one place is in relation to another—the central principle of sociology.

Yes, my experience could be viewed as another technological change, where paper maps or dog eared travel books become obsolete. But as helpful as apps and GPS might be, they may also help us narrow our focus too much and miss out on the broader context of not just where we are headed, but what people and ideas are around us.

In some ways (but certainly not all) the electronic revolution helps us narrow our focus within the broader social world. We can choose to read news from sources that share our world views, see what stuff our friends like on Pinterest, or talk or text with people we know while ignoring those in our immediate vicinity.

We also learn a lot from the internet and its derivatives; we might search one term and stumble upon something related we didn’t know to look for. From the car we could find out where to find the best gas prices or check out the menu of a nearby restaurant before driving there. Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Pop Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, calls this “telescoping,” where searching for one topic leads to further interest in related topics.

But telescopes are, by definition, narrow. We don’t see what’s sitting right next to the proverbial telescope. Just as searching for a book online is a different experience from searching on library shelves, where turning around can lead us to books on somewhat different topics, newer technology shifts the method of discovery.

clip_image006One of the great aspects of a road trip is seeing subtle geographic changes along the way and seeing how things are connected. Driving north from Los Angeles served as a reminder of how close I am to farmlands and military bases, places I seldom encounter in my daily life. As I blogged about a while back, we can see some of these patterns from the air when traveling by plane, but on the road the patterns show us more detail about context, which we can easily miss if we turn away for a few seconds on an airplane.

New technologies can be very useful and can connect us to one another in unique ways; for example, many social movements rely on Twitter and Facebook to mobilize participants. These same technologies can sometimes discourage us from using old-fashioned means of discovery, though. On my next road trip I’ll bring my paper maps and guide books and my electronic devices. Fortunately, we don’t have to choose just one method of navigation.

Here’s a really old-fashioned way to find out where to visit: talking to people there. One of the best ways to find out about what to see while traveling is to talk to someone who lives there or someone who is also seeing the sights. Yes, there are online sites where people leave comments and post recommendations, but getting a feel for who the recommender is helps us to decide whether their advice may apply to our interests or not. Once again, context is important.

Thinking sociologically, how else may new technology aid or inhibit understanding the broader contexts of the people and places we visit?


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Every day the world changes people are born and people die. With each new day people are trying to find ways to make their life easier and ways to connect with others. In the past decade we have experienced a wave of technology thought only to exist in science fiction. Communication devices such as the iPhone or the development of Facebook has enabled us to connect with anyone in the world granted they have these devices as well.
According to the CIA World fact book approx 21 percent of the world has some type of internet connection. The question is how do we connect with the other 76 percent of the world? The internet is a wonderful tool to use but it fails to connect us with the majority of the world. For most of the western world we have become so dependent on this technology that we forget that the majority of the world does not have it. Since most of the world does not have this tool, a great part of the world becomes almost nonexistent to the western world. In this instance technology has inhibited our growth

Very well said. I totally agree with you that although technology can bring people closer through hi-tech communication, there is nothing like talking to people face-to-face. It’s like getting to know them in a more intimate and personal manner. Thank you for sharing.

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