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Is GPS Rotting Our Brains?

There’s a maxim I like: All technology invented before you’re 35 is genius and makes life worth living — and all technology invented thereafter is stupid and guaranteed to rot the brains of the bozos who rely on it. Now a study shows that when it comes to GPS, at least, the adage may be true.

Thanks to way-finding apps like Google Maps and Waze, paper maps have gone the way of the Dewey Decimal System, Wite-Out, and mixtapes — and it’s been a decade since anyone’s said, “If you pass the green fence, you’ve gone too far.” We count on our GPS-linked phones to tell us not only how to get where we’re going, but when to leave, which lane to be in, and what obstructions await us ahead. It’s mad handy, y’all. But what do we trade for this convenience?

A recent letter in the Washington Post by tech journalist M.R. O’Connor argues that relying solely on GPS to help you traverse your environs may actually shrink your hippocampus — the area of the brain responsible not just for spatial navigation but also for recalling the past and even imagining the future. Atrophy of the hippocampus is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, she points out, and the art of getting lost — and of getting oneself unlost — well, it’s lost.

Part of me isn’t surprised. What did we think, that there would be no karmic retribution for trading our clunky-but-trusty Thomas Guides for battery-operated pocket navigators that invite satellites to track us from outer space?!

But those of us who still remember how to dial a rotary phone must be careful not to slide into fogeyism each time we’re reminded that the next generation will experience life differently than us. I mean, you could argue that the hippocampi of today’s teens will remain robust solely from mentally mapping the virtual terrains in their single-shooter video games.

Sure, today’s technology will prevent tomorrow’s kids from having to learn lots of things we had to master. Alphabetizing. Cursive handwriting. Addressing an envelope. But frankly, so what? None of us over-35ers would believe that we’re less intellectually equipped simply because we were born in an era that no longer required us to learn the foxtrot. Or the slide rule. Who cares if your kids will never learn to drive a stick shift — when they probably won’t need to drive at all? And if you can’t read a sundial on the fly, then save your rant about Gen Z’s inability to read an analog clock.

Importantly, though … not all skills are equal. Notwithstanding the fact that I am a non-scientist with less-than-no evidence, I believe there are some competencies that technology has robbed the next generation from having to learn — things that might actually shape the evolution of our species’ gray matter. For example, last-minute texting has sapped our need to plan ahead. Having 64 gigs of data processing and a camera in our pockets 24/7 has eliminated our need to remember things: phone numbers, license plates, the name of our favorite wine. Entertainment at the ready has rendered us unable to be bored. The internet is making us lazy problem-solvers who can’t figure out puzzles on our own with limited information.

And oy vey — texting. “I had two choices if I wanted to contact a friend as a kid,” says a pal, who is 61. “Call their house or run over there. Both ways involved a minute or two of speaking with a parent or older sibling.” Not so today — and the result is noticeable damage to conversation skills and face-to-face interactions.

Of course, kids today are mastering other things — things we didn’t and probably never will: Coding and programming. Focusing amid distractions. Assessing the credibility of information. Accepting people who are different. Adapting to a world that’s changing faster than their parents ever imagined possible.

I don’t want to be the crank who chides the latest technology for all its scary newness. Nor do I want to partake mindlessly of modern convenience without considering its implications. But I get a little lost navigating between the two viewpoints, to be honest. Thank god for Waze or I’d never find my way out.

You’ve arrived at your destination.

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