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Binary Man: Map Vs. GPS

Binary Man has come to our planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life better. Got an issue for him? Post it below or e-mail him.

Binary Man's day job regularly takes him to new-ish suburban subdivisions that aren't on any map. GPS systems don't recognize the street names and paper maps show nothing but wide open spaces.

In those cases, it's the old paper maps that get him closest, but to be fair, that's as much a factor of his having paid attention in second grade during the SRA Map and Globe Skills lessons (Binary Man recalls racing against Roger Hoffman to reach the gold level in those SRA cards; the memory says victory, but Roger may have a different recollection) as it is a tribute to the natural superiority of paper maps.

On the other hand, your Either/Or man's directionally-challenged friends swear by their GPS systems. Old Germany pal Tammy, for example, who once inadvertently drove from Paris to Bonn via Luxembourg back in the pre-GPS era, believes in the gadgets the way some of you worship your crackberries.

So, which is better, the handheld product of cartographers who literally drive out to the edge of sprawl to eyeball new streets, or the electronic wizardry that views the world from satellites and speaks to you like a latter-day Hal, unemotionally adjusting to your human frailties?

The 'puter press is chock full of lovesongs to the gods of GPS, and they make some good points: GPS is faster, more convenient and far less likely to have coffee stains or tears at exactly the stretch of Rt. 15 where you need to find your turnoff. And if you're really, really lost--so much so that you have no point of reference on a map--then GPS is your only hope.

Maybe. Because if you have even the slightest facility with maps, you will find some landmark, some street name, some entry into the big picture that maps lay out for you in a way that GPS screens simply cannot.

GPS lovers tout their technology as a killer app that, for the average user, makes maps obsolete. Why do you need to know that bigger picture if all you want to do is get to the party? Even if GPS directions are sometimes wildly over-literal or send you onto deserted dead ends, they're pretty darn good at getting you there.

But life is not just about arriving at the destination. You'll pardon Binary Man for getting a little idealistic or even a tad bit nostalgic, but it really is about the journey, and only a gosh darn old school map shows you the true path.

GPS delivers the goods, but a map tells a story. The worn, torn and forlorn maps crammed into the compartments in the doors of Binary Man's car summon all manner of memories; as poorly refolded as they may be, long since missing their covers, they provide instant shortcuts to mental pictures of beach vacations and family road trips.

And, if you're all about the efficiency, there's some evidence that maps get you there faster. In tests in Britain, an old-fashioned printed road atlas beat out a fancy GPS sat-nav system rather handily. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if the gizmo can't even claim to beat the paper product nearly every time, then why even consider selling your soul?

Verdict: Binary Man, despite his genetic preference for the new and the digital, chooses the relic of the paper era. Not because it gets you there faster (sometimes it won't) and not because it's a sentimental fave (goodness--there are still people who get TripTiks from the AAA [they always had the coolest of felt-tip markers to color-code your way to the next motel]), but rather for these essential reasons:

A map assumes that a person has a brain and cares to use it; GPS operates on the idea that people move through life on a need-to-know basis. A map imparts not only information to act upon, but a larger sense of the world; GPS, in a sad way, makes us dumber. A map opens possibilities; GPS limits them.

Binary Man is by no means arguing for a Luddite approach; there are times and places and people for whom the satellite is the best solution. But Binary Man covers his walls with maps, and if he had to choose between those maps and windows, he'd stick with the ones that provide the bigger vista, the ones created by cartographers, bless their hearts.

What do you think?

Do you have a tough dilemma you'd like Binary Man to tackle? Pass it along at and The Man will decide whether to give it the treatment.

By Marc Fisher |  March 27, 2009; 8:36 AM ET
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I'm no expert on European geography, Binary Man, but luckily Google Maps is, and it would seem that Paris to Bonn via Luxembourg is only about an hour out of the way on a 6 hour trip. It's not like she wound up in Portugal.

Google Maps is sort of the best of both worlds, in my opinion - you can get reasonable accurate turn by turn directions, you have the opportunity to easily experiment with routes, you get as big a picture as you could want with as much detail as you need.... And you give yourself the opportunity to go off the beaten path without that nagging little voice correcting you - unless you give the printed map to the person in the next seat over, of course.

Posted by: tomsing | March 27, 2009 9:22 AM

There are merits to both, but here are two major advantages for GPS: First, when you drive alone a lot, and can't or don't want to pull over to read a map (especially if you're on a busy highway, or in a bad neighborhood), GPS talks to you, so you can keep your eyes on the road. Second, I often use my GPS as a map -- instead of asking it for directions, I zoom in or out to see what my options are (yes, including the big picture) -- and unlike a map, the GPS tells me exactly where I am right now and in what direction I am moving.

Oh, and third -- my map cannot tell me that there is a Starbucks (or a gas station, or a grocery store) near my destination, and help me find it. If I knew before I left that I would need to find one, I could look it up in advance, but that rules out spontaneity and unforeseen emergencies.

Posted by: Janine1 | March 27, 2009 10:20 AM

This is an unusual dilemma, because most of the logical arguments are on the side of the GPS, easier to use, shows where you are, can be updated, can inform of traffic conditions (the best ones), gives audible directions. But I think I'm with Binary man on this one, because when you have the map spread out, you can see just how all the roads fit together and you can pick out some possible alternate routes for the future.

Posted by: octopi213 | March 27, 2009 10:30 AM

I find that the GPS tells me routes that simply aren't the best way to go. Last night, it wanted to sen me around Dupont Circle. Now, any sane DC resident (and apparently Google Maps) knows that Dupont is to be avoid at all costs. But my GPS doesn't know that. Slavish devotion to the directions of the GPS led the driver into Dupont.

My GPS also hates, I mean HATES the GW parkway. I haven't figured out why. I think the GPS is a worthless hunk of junk and curse the dya my in-laws gave it to us.

Posted by: RedBirdie | March 27, 2009 10:47 AM

I have a GPS and it's kind of neat, but I find myself always plotting my route on a map (or mapquest, google maps, whatever) and then using the GPS to confirm my route. And when it varies from my mapped-out route, I usually ignore the GPS. I'd like to see GPSs come with software that gets irritated when you don't follow it ("Hey you missed the turn, dummy!").

Posted by: capsfan77 | March 27, 2009 10:50 AM

Thank god, someone else who has a brain and likes to use it. I'm so sick of avoiding interstate drivers who are fiddling with their GPS and not watching to road, and who seem to have no grasp of the local geography. I know people who would program their GPS to drive from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial! That is just sad. If the GPS drove them into the Potomac, they would probably follow its "all knowing" directions.

Spend 5 minutes looking at a map once, and you learn more (and will remember more in the future) than a GPS will ever teach you. Look at that map a few times, and chances are you won't have to look up directions next time you need to get some place.

Maps are about learning. GPS is about avoiding learning.

Posted by: astronomer | March 27, 2009 10:58 AM

GPS is useful though risky in unfamiliar areas. It makes lots of boneheaded mistakes in familiar areas, missing shortcuts and other better routes in favor of the obvious one with the huge blockage.

But then maps are now printed so small I can't read them, so whatever.

Posted by: jweissmn | March 27, 2009 10:58 AM

Maybe I'm just sensitive, but I find my GPS's "Make a U-turn, if possible," following by a silent (on-screen) "Recalculating" kind of accusatory.

Posted by: Janine1 | March 27, 2009 10:59 AM

I've ridden with a number of friends who have GPS units in their cars, and about half the time the GPS sends them on an unexpected or incorrect route. This can encourage unsafe driving (e.g. sudden lane changes) and leads to the mindset that the GPS is in control, with the human driver blindly obeying its commands.

I use Google Maps (or sometimes a paper map) to get directions , and then I print out or write down the directions. Planning ahead takes a bit of time but it sure beats taking a series of wrong turns because your GPS told you to.

Posted by: bokamba | March 27, 2009 11:03 AM

I'm baffled. I'm in my mid-40s, but I can't imagine wasting time and patience by trying to find a paper map, looking up the address, and guessing the best route to a place I will never go again. Use your time for traveling safely and for doing what you're planning to do at your destination, not needless paperwork.

Google maps is an alternative, but once you are on route, it means you need to refer to something on paper (which can cause an accident) instead of being guided in real-time by audio and a simple display.

To me, the biggest advantage of a GPS besides simplicity, speed, and lack of paper is that it is adaptable when you make a wrong turn and simply and quickly "recalculates" a new route (usually not a U turn, in my experience).

The second biggest advantage is that it can get you out of a disastrous traffic jam within seconds or, at worst, minutes. You just hit detour and it immediately finds an exit and an alternative path. For this reason, I often cue up my GPS even when I am going somewhere I've gone a million times before. The "detour" or escape-hatch option is such a stress reliever when it's needed, and traffic jams are always a possibility in northern Virginia.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | March 27, 2009 11:20 AM

Sorry, one more addition: we do use our GPS to find a local restaurant often when we are out for longer than expected and want to try something new in an area we didn't expect to be eating in. It's led us to small restaurants with interesting cuisines (you can search by cuisines) in suburban areas visually dominated by chain restaurants and strip malls, and there is a "treasure hunt" quality to these small adventures.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | March 27, 2009 11:25 AM

Marc, please don't take the buy out.

I like both maps and GPS and use both.

GPS and maps will get you there but GPS can tell you more (depending on the unit) such as traffic congestion and alternate routes, the nearest Italian restaurant, or nearest gas station.

I have found some interesting new parks to take my kids to using my GPS and searching for nearby parks. These parks did not appear on my maps.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | March 27, 2009 11:26 AM

I agree, fairfaxvoter. Compare two times when I was stuck in a massive traffic jam due to a highway accident. One happened before I had GPS; I was in an unfamiliar part of VA, and was lucky I had a friend with me -- but even with her close examination of two maps, we struggled to find a detour. More recently, I was in a similar situation in an unfamiliar part of MD, and I just took the first exit I saw and used my GPS to reroute my trip.

By the way, my GPS has never directed me into a river or an unexpected turn (and if it did, I wouldn't "blindly" follow -- the problem there is idiot driving, not GPS, and there were plenty of idiots in the old map days too). But I got some pretty ambiguous directions from Mapquest in my pre-GPS days. (If you think lane-changing GPS drivers are a hazard, you should have seen me trying to figure out what the printout was telling me to do, holding it against the steering wheel and squinting by the dome light, while flying down the highway...)

Posted by: Janine1 | March 27, 2009 11:34 AM

If you spend time developing your GPS skills as much as your map skills, you'll be at a happy medium. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your own GPS can make it a far better alternative. Keeping it updated is also part of that process.

I know too many people who have a GPS who don't turn it on much. Then when they need it, they have no idea how to make it work well; they blame the machine, while pulling out a well thumbed map.

Makes no sense to me. Map reading is a learned skill, GPS use is not?

Posted by: JkR- | March 27, 2009 2:16 PM

A lot of times I study the map first, then use the GPS. When driving alone I often don't have the time to scan the map while keeping my eyes on the road. I'm normally old school for a lot of things but the GPS is one hell of an invention and I rely on it a lot.

Posted by: bbride1 | March 27, 2009 2:20 PM

I gave up on GPS' when a friend bought one and it could not locate the Freddie Mac headquarters building in Tysons. Its been there for about 20 years.

Posted by: thunder3053 | March 27, 2009 2:24 PM

I like the GPS because it allows you to be adventurous if your out of town somewhere. Normally, I would not leave my pre-planned route if I were on a road trip or on business out of town out of fear of never being able to find my way back. I might not always have a map for a place I am spending one night in for work.

With GPS, if I see something in the distance that looks interesting, I will go and check it out. Doesn't matter how many rights or lefts I take in the course of getting there. It is also great for detours while traveling. See a two mile long parking lot up head? Just get off at the first exit. My GPS even has a feature where I can tell it I need a work around for what I tell it is a "roadblock". It will reroute me off the highway and then back on a few miles down.

When I go off the normal path, I still keep mental notes of where I am going. Just because I have the GPS, it doesn't mean I can turn my sense of awareness off. I also usually bring google maps directions as a backup.

Posted by: BurtReynolds | March 28, 2009 2:02 PM

I don't have a GPS, for the same reason I don't have cell phone: needless gadgets. The 8 or so land-line phone calls I have received in all of this month have all been pre-recorded spams).

I use a paper map (sometimes Google maps) to show me how to get to where I need to go.

I might get a GPS for the same reason I might get a cell-phone: to show me where I am in case of an emergency.

But I would not trust it to plot my route from here to there.

Posted by: tkavanag | March 29, 2009 4:08 PM

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