Directionally Challenged

Karen and I recently became avid watchers of Foyle’s War, a British police drama set during World War II that is both amazing historical commentary, as well as a jarring look into modern culture, all done with top-notch writing and an amazing cast. One of the things that I enjoy about an excellent historical series are the conversations about the period that it sparks. Last night, in the middle of the episode, the iPad was out to consult Wikipedia about some minute detail of law enforcement in the U.K., which of course in turn brings about interesting facts that neither of us knew, and conversation ensues.

Why, yes, we are a bit nerdy that way.

This show does an excellent job of capturing all of the little details of what life was like in the U.K. during the war. One of the details that  caught our attention last night was the fact that they took down the signs providing directions in places like rail stations, so that potential German invaders wouldn’t know which way they were going. Yet, all of the characters knew which train to catch.

The last time I visited New York City, I was never really comfortable with the subway. Had there not been someone in the group (it was Spring Break during my undergrad, if that tells you how long ago I visited) that knew the system, I would have been clueless as to which train to take, maps and signs or not. Of course, this isn’t the case for those who live in the city, but, as an outsider I was clueless. The effect was very disorienting.

Even driving around my own city, though, I rely on GPS to take me somewhere that I’ve never been. I remember thinking, when the GPS became part of our technological arsenal, that the part of my brain that is good with directions must be at risk of atrophy. I rely on turn-by-turn directions to get me across town to an office with which I’m unfamiliar, yet the characters in Foyle’s War knew which train to take with no signage whatsoever.

I wonder if the ubiquitous availability of our data causes parts of our brain to deteriorate from lack of exercise. I don’t just mean with directional signage, though. I mean that the amounts of literature and writings that were once memorized as a common practice aren’t any longer. I have no motivation to memorize facts, quotes, or references, because I can search them out on my phone whenever I need to “remember” them. In fact, I don’t even need to type them out…I can tell my phone to search for them. 

Karen commented once that, upon moving to the South, she noticed that no one knew how to do anything for themselves. That is, in New England, nearly everyone either knows how to repair what just broke on their car, for example, or knows someone who knows how to repair it and is willing to lend a hand. Here, no one even changes their own oil it seems. And I’m just as guilty of that as anyone. While this employs many people in so-called service professions, it also makes us frighteningly unable to be self-reliant in many areas.

When it comes to remembering things, I think we’ve lost a great deal of self-reliance. Since I’m into dystopian scenarios, I have to imagine what we would do if some catastrophic data loss occurred world-wide, leading to crashes of servers and breakdowns of communication. How much would we know? Even when I’m working on a car myself instead of taking it to a shop, I look up what I need to do on Google, and forget it soon after I’ve finished. Without instant access to whatever we need to know, we can’t remember it…which means that we don’t really know it.

Which, by that definition, means that we don’t really know much.

Photo Attribution: SMcGarnigle under Creative Commons

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