In the era of smartphones, why would anyone still need a paper map?

Road trip! Get ready to unfold! And fold. And unfold.
Paper maps tend to support deeper knowledge rather than surface knowledge, according to author Meredith Broussard. (Henry Perks/Unplash, Pixabay)

Before the dawn of GPS-enabled smart phones, finding your way around usually meant unfolding a paper map.

While these days, mapping apps seem to be the navigational tool of choice, author Meredith Broussard says that going digital might actually be hurting our sense of where we are geographically and what's around us. 

In her book, Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, Broussard argues that we tend to have a bias towards digital solutions—even if they're not necessarily better, or might be worse, than their analog counterparts.  

Case in point: a digital map might be fine for getting directions from point A to point B, but if you want to get a holistic overview of a place—say, you're backpacking through Europe, for example—Broussard says a paper map is the superior tool.

Are you really into maps? Step into the Spark audio archive and listen to an episode we aired dedicated to the future of maps.

"When you're looking on your phone, you've only got a few inches, so it's much harder to get a high-level overview of what a geography is like," said Broussard, who recently wrote an article about why paper maps still matter.

Broussard distinguishes between "deep knowledge" and "surface knowledge." Surface knowledge, which is what digital maps tend to encourage, is something you can have a conversation about, but don't understand very deeply. "I like to think of it as cocktail-party level of conversation," she said. 

In an interview with Spark host Nora Young, Broussard explained why paper maps are better for developing deeper knowledge. Here is part of their conversation.

Why do paper maps tend to support that deeper knowledge a bit more extensively than digital ones do?

So this has to do with the cognitive dimensions of understanding. When we read on a screen, one of the things that our brains are doing is compensating for a flicker on the screen.

There's a little bit less of your cognitive power that's available to you when you are reading something on a screen. - Meredith Broussard

So when you videotape a screen, you know how there's a flicker? That flicker is imperceptible to us when we're looking at it with our eyes because our brains are compensating for it. You don't notice it, but there's a little bit less of your cognitive power that's available to you when you are reading something on a screen. 

Whereas when you're reading something on paper, it doesn't have that flicker, your brain is not compensating, and so you have more cognitive power available to you. So this is one of the reasons that students, for example, often prefer reading complicated text in print as opposed to on the screen. It allows you to acquire that deeper understanding faster. 

There's also a sensory motor component to it. When you are engaging the different sensory systems of your body in reading—​whether you're reading a printed book or you're reading a printed map and you're using your finger to turn the page, or using your finger to trace a route that you're going to drive across the country—physically engaging is helping to cement that knowledge into your brain. 

Yeah, but I guess you might ask why it matters? I mean, as long as I can look up how to get where I need to go whenever I need to go somewhere, why do I need that deep knowledge?

That's a really good point, and what I would argue is that it's about using the right tool for the task. Sometimes all you need is to go from point A to Point B and then you can just forget about it, and then other times you really need to understand a high level view of a place. 

Meredith Broussard, author of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World. (Lucy Baber)

So think about when you took a history class. You probably had to do some kind of a quiz where you had to identify on a map where the different countries were. 

I remember in college I took a bunch of classes on African history, and the first thing that we did in each of the classes was we had a map quiz where they gave us a blank map of Africa, and you had to write in all of the all of the countries and all of the capitals. It was really important to have that knowledge cemented in our brains so that we could then go on to understand the history and the geography and the political alliances. 

Because if you don't know where Ethiopia and Somalia are relative to each other, it really limits your ability to understand their history as two places. 

Exactly, exactly. Whereas if I don't entirely know where I'm going in San Francisco and I'm just here for work for two days, it doesn't really matter. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.


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