My father detests GPS navigation systems. Even after the proliferation of navigation systems, he insists on using paper maps–our family’s map of the Bay Area of California remains a mess of tape, highlighter marks, and sun faded ink nearly twelve years after we first bought it from a Triple A store in Gilroy. My sister and I have learned not to pull our phones out for Google Maps’s aide in fear of a spirited lecture on topography, the adventure spirit, and our generation’s general over-reliance on the internet.
Perhaps as a consequence of his insistence to liberate himself from electronic modes of navigation, my father has the greatest sense of orientation I have been exposed to. From the bustling streets of Seoul, Korea, to the rainy forests of Yakushima in the south of Japan, to the scorched red Southwestern spread of Kanab, Utah, I have rarely seen my father lost. This is not to say that my father has an innate ability to find his way without support; rather, it stems from his remarkable skill to ask for directions when needed and on his nearly 60 years of wandering around the world.
The Spring break of my Freshman year, my father flew in from Korea to visit me in Manhattan. While I was partaking in the last day of class, my father wandered the streets of Manhattan. When I asked him where he walked, he responded Central Park and the Financial District. Confused by the sheer distance between the two locations, I asked him if he took the train, to which he responded “no.”
To get from the southern end of Central Park to Houston, my father explained, he used both a rudimentary understanding of civil engineering and the nature of Manhattan’s grid structure. The way traffic lights are designed in New York City are coordinated in waves. In a hypothetical world, one would be able to drive down Fifth Avenue without stopping by driving at the same speed in which the light changes. However, since we as humans cannot walk as fast as cars, nor do we live in a world where there isn’t scaffolding or accidents in the city, we cannot utilize the wave system. We can, however, choose to walk in diagonals instead of straight lines. Due to his distaste of standing still, my father would cross every time a light turned white, thus starting a non-stop trek down the streets of manhattan. While this does not make my father’s trip any shorter (had he stood still every time a light turned red, he would have taken the same amount of time), he did garner much more of the city in his horizontal movements. It’s this insistence to constantly garner pertinent knowledge rather than simply getting the most optimal route that allows him to be so well oriented no matter where he goes.
LinkNYC is a project that took off recently from the Mayor’s office to allow free internet for the denizens of New York. While in many ways this is a huge benefit for the city, part of me wonders if our generation is losing touch with their ability to navigate through and respond to their environment by having access to instantaneous answers rather than through experience and problem solving.