The Lost World

Google Maps tells Kevin Nguyen where he is, but he also has no idea where he is.

Illustration by Mare Odomo

It’s hard to imagine the scale of the world, especially when you’re spilling spaghetti all over it. Like many kids, I was raised eating over a washable placemat that featured a world map printed in bright colors with finely labeled countries. (Perhaps this is an explanation of why Americans’ collective knowledge of European geography is so bad — the continent is positioned right under your dinner plate.) When I think of the world, I can only think of the image on my placemat.

I remember the rude awakening I had in early elementary school when the teacher showed us a world map that was “more accurate” in scale than the world map I was used to seeing. Places that were in the world periphery — Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, etc. — were far larger than depicted on my placemat. North America was a lot smaller than I thought.

We think of maps as factual representations of geography, but the truth is that maps aren’t objective for the same reasons photographs and paintings can’t be. There’s a selective truth in map-making — in most cases, a distortion of scale. According to Mark Monmonier, author of Lying with Maps, “Most maps are massive reductions of the reality they represent, and clarity demands that much of that reality be suppressed.”

I remember being in awe when I tried Google Earth for the first time. Mapquest had been popular for years, but it seemed impossible that the real world could be mapped. And though Google Earth allowed you to explore the entire planet, I did the same thing everybody else did first: I looked up my home address.

Why? I could’ve looked out the window and seen more clearly what Google’s satellites had photographed from space. Maybe we want the reality we see to be verified, charted on a computer. Sometimes the world feels more like a giant Google Map than a real place.

My dad, an early adopter of all gadgets, had a GPS navigation system back in 2004, right around the time they were widely available but uncommonly seen. I borrowed the family GPS on a three-hour road trip visiting colleges in New York.

The reason Dad chose the TomTom over competing brands was for a feature that let him download celebrity voices. To my dad, the idea of John Cleese telling you where to go was novel. Instead of just saying “turn right,” Cleese would exclaim, “Bear right, beaver left” (get it?), which would probably be funny and not painfully irritating if getting somewhere usually involved no more than one right turn.

The only other personality my father had downloaded was Mr. T, who punctuated each of his lines with a terrifying laugh. He’d remind you that he pitied the fool that didn’t wear a seatbelt. When the GPS sensed that you were going too fast, Mr. T would pity the fool who got a speeding ticket.

The TomTom also had a habit of glitching out if it believed you had strayed from the route it had set. The computer would automatically readjust its course a few times, much to the ire of Mr. T, who would repeat himself with each re-routing.

“Shut up and listen to me. Haha-ha! Shut up and listen to me. Haha-ha!”

Thanks to the wit of John Cleese and Mr. T, I would never be lost again. At the time, I didn’t realize how tragic this fact was.

“I pity the fool who gets a speeding ticket! Haha-ha!”

One winter break in college — about four years after my first experience with the TomTom — I found myself visiting my friend Kara frequently, because she lived near Boston, which was a lot more exciting than the suburb where my parents were. My dad had just leased a shiny new car with a GPS navigation system built in, so I got to keep the TomTom in the car that I shared with my brother. (Dad had not downloaded any new voices, so I was once again stuck riding with John Cleese.)

But after driving there half a dozen times, I realized I couldn’t get to Kara’s without the help of the GPS because I had relied on it each time. It’s so easy to zone out and ignore the areas around you when you’re looking at a digital map, being told whenever you need to bear right, beaver left.

In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit says, “Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” Which is to say that we spend too much time being terrified of getting lost rather than embracing the chance to be confronted by something new and unknown. We don’t really get lost anymore, but we also don’t know where we’re going.

I’m not sure if there’s a consequence to not understanding or paying attention to our surroundings, but the experience reminded me of a scene from The Phantom Tollbooth. In the book, there’s a place called the City of Reality where people realized they could get to where they were going faster if they looked straight down at their feet as they walked rather than looking up at their surroundings. All of the city’s inhabitants start doing it until the City of Reality slowly vanishes.

Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.

Illustration by Maré Odomo

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.