It’s become a commonplace that modern technology has eroded our ability to navigate: that relying on GPS and smartphones is destroying our brains’ abilities to form cognitive maps and that we’d be utterly lost without them.1 I’m not sure I subscribe to that point of view: plenty of people have been getting themselves lost for generations; relying on an iPhone to get home is not much different from nervously having to follow someone’s scribbled directions without really knowing where you’re going.
For my part, I can’t get lost. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for me to get lost: that has, in fact, been known to happen. I mean that I can’t allow myself not to know where I am under any circumstances. I’ve got a pretty good cognitive map, but if I’m in a strange city without a map of said city, I’m deeply uncomfortable if not upset; provide me with a map to get my bearings with and I’m immediately at ease. In my case, having an iPhone—with multiple map applications—means I don’t have to get to the nearest map outlet as soon as freaking possible. It’s not, in other words, an either-or situation.
John Edward Huth is firmly in the former camp. He’s a particle physicist at Harvard who’s worked on the Higgs boson who for years has been running an interesting side gig: he teaches a course on what he has called “primitive navigation”—the ancient means of navigating the world that existed prior to the advent of some later technology. The course, and the accompanying book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2013), are an exercise in recapturing those methods.
Said methods include some you’d expect: celestial navigation, dead reckoning, the use of a compass; but also some that are much more subtle, that rely on observation and situational awareness—on mindfulness. Understanding how winds, waves and currents work in a given location, or the migration patterns of animals, enables you to use them as natural compasses, or to make corrections in your course—that is, if you pay close attention to them. These are ancient tricks of the trade, not all of which are reliable (moss on the north side of trees) or whose reliability needs to be qualified.
What Huth posits, then, is the need to be connected to and aware of your surroundings—the antithesis, some might say, of staring at a smartphone screen all day. But that connectedness is also stubbornly local: I might know the patterns of winds and birds where I live, but put me on another continent and I’ll flounder. Not everything in this book scales.
The book is a resolutely practical guide, with hundreds of figures, but its most valuable lesson, I suspect, is to demonstrate just how good human beings can become, unaided, at navigating their surroundings—at getting unlost—with practice and skill. It’s something we haven’t needed to do for a while. It’s useful to be able to do it, even if it doesn’t come up very much.