The headlines are stark: ‘Warning over decline in map skills as ramblers rely on Sat Navs’ announced the Daily Telegraph on 19 February of this year; ‘Sat-nav and the lost art of map-reading’ the same paper lamented on 16 June 2011. Supporting these views, there are some hard statistics: sales of Ordnance Survey sheet maps have fallen by 25% since 2005; and in a survey conducted on behalf of Which? Conversation in July 2011, the frightening revelation that two-thirds of under 25s cannot read a map!
Large-scale maps, together with muddy boots, have traditionally been part of the English local historian’s essential toolkit. If we are to believe what we read, and there is no reason to doubt it (recently I asked a second-year undergraduate group who among them now used maps—no-one raised their hand!), then one of the prerequisite skills for local study, particularly among the younger generation, is rapidly disappearing. To whom does W.G. Hoskins now speak when we read passages such as this?
‘There are certain sheets of the one-inch Ordnance Survey maps which one can sit down and read like a book for an hour on end, with growing pleasure and imaginative excitement. One dwells upon the infinite variety of the place-names (and yet there is a characteristic flavour for each region of England), the delicate nerve-like complexity of roads and lanes, the siting of the villages and hamlets, the romantic moated farmsteads in deep country, the churches standing alone in the fields, the patterns made by the contours or by the way the parish boundaries fit into one another, and in so doing so learns a good deal of local history, whether or not one knows the country itself.’
Pack up, turn out the lights, lock the door, it’s time to go home. Or is it?
Cartographic literacy is a relatively modern phenomenon and certainly rare in the general populace much before the end of the nineteenth century. Local historians who study earlier periods must accept, I think, that for the majority of those they study, maps were rather inconsequential. The view that they formed of their world was not constructed as ours so often is. It was known from the ground and not from some vantage point 35,000 feet above. It was experienced in three dimensions rather than in a two-dimensional abstraction. Buildings had facades not just floor plans, fields were defined as much by what they contained as their boundaries. Once a map has been seen, it is never forgotten. It burns itself into the imagination, structuring all subsequent impressions of place. And because of this, I have begun to wonder just how wise it is to look at maps at an early stage in any study of a particular locality (a heretical position for a landscape historian). But what should we make of Sat Nav technology?
Even those who had access to maps in the past did not necessarily use or rely upon them when travelling. William Cobbett revealed in 1823 that he ‘had not looked at a map of Kent for years, and perhaps, never’. A year earlier he had made his way through Surrey and Hampshire without the aid of a map of the former. To navigate he asked the way from those he encountered; or employed (not always successfully) the services of a local guide. A lone traveller in the past was thus accompanied by the oral instructions of others. In an echo of the woman who instructed Cobbett of the way to Hawkey ‘Right up the lane, sir: you’ll come to a hanger…’ so the Sat Nav now commands, ‘In four hundred yards, turn left’. ‘Left’, note, not north or south, east or west. Left, because the top of the Sat Nav map, just as it has been for travellers across the centuries, is where one is heading, not a privileged cardinal point. Past geographies were always more fluid.
Intriguing though this may be, it is often claimed that Sat Nav is doing considerable cultural damage, because it removes details which would be found on a map highlighting interesting aspects of the landscape visible either side of the route being taken. Two miles west of Amesbury there is a fork in the road made by the joining of the A303 and the A344. If you are off to Ilminster and the West Country, your Sav Nav will plot a course which highlights the lefthand side of the Y shape which emerges on the display. The blank background on which your route has been superimposed has hidden one of the most iconic structures in the English landscape from your view—Stonehenge. You continue oblivious to its existence if you rely on Sat Nav; you strain your neck to see it if you have a map. But is this really any different from the Ogilby’s strip maps of the seventeenth century, destinations at the top of the page, the actual route clearly laid out with important junctions identified, but almost all other peripheral landmarks eliminated? The Sat Nav screen is simply a digital version of the same.
This aside, there is the question of distance. From the sheet map, distance is a linear measure, and so it remains in the Sat Nav. But here it is paired with time: ’52 minutes remaining’. It is not only Sat Nav that deploys this experiential device to measure distance. ’16 miles, 14 minutes to Jct 20’ announces the motorway matrix and we breathe a sigh of relief: the carriageway is clear and traffic is flowing freely; we will arrive at our destination on time and unflustered. This equation of distance with time is also historically interesting, for it was time more than anything which dictated the daily cycle of local life, particularly agrarian life, in the past. Have you ever wondered why the mile has become such a significant distance, and why it is the distance that it is, and not longer or shorter? It is a distance that can be covered in a quarter of an hour on foot, a distance within which it is still economically viable to drive a team of oxen, have sufficient time to plough the fields. The mile is a social and economic construct, a human not scientific measure.
Then there is the question of route. We can ask our Sat Nav to plot the quickest route, the most direct route, routes which avoid certain types of road. And again, we might use this to think about how people navigated through the historic landscape. Can we use these decisions and the routes taken to think about path-making in the past? I would argue that it can.
Sat Nav thus makes us think differently about space, time, distance, and direction. It does so because it challenges the hegemony of the sheet map upon which we have come to rely. However disembodied the voice, Sat Nav returns us, it might be argued, to more fundamentally human ways of navigation and orientation based around the direction in which we are facing, and the time it will take us to achieve something. This should help us, should we care to allow it, to think ourselves back more readily into the shoes of those who have walked or ridden in the past through the localities we study. The new generation brought up with Sat Nav may just have the skills to gain a far better insight into the lives and thoughts of these people than those of us brought up on the Ordnance Survey. To paraphrase once more the most paraphrased of phrases, Levi-Strauss’ ‘Animals are good to think with’, it might be contended that for local historians, ‘Sat Nav technology is good to think with’ too.