Joe's Memos

I Stopped Using Map Apps for a Month

As part of an ongoing effort to slow myself down, to “stop and smell the roses” more often, I quit using map apps on my phone for one month. I learned a few things along the way.

The most surprising was that I felt less rushed. I can’t quite explain it, but somehow I felt less rushed.

I think it has to do with the cost of using these devices and apps that have become our world. They cost us our attention. We must give it to them in order to extract any value from them. And when our attention is directed at a tool, or directed at our destination but filtered through a tool, we feel some level of stress. Maybe it’s just the stress of having one more thing to do as we’re heading out the door.

When I didn’t use the map app, I didn’t just avoid one step. I avoided several steps. I kept my attention directed at my destination instead of being pulled in multiple directions.

Instead of picking up my phone to open the app, getting distracted by some other notification or app, finally opening the map app, entering my destination, getting distracted by another notification, checking my estimated arrival time, and then deciding exactly when I needed to leave in order to arrive exactly five minutes early, I just left as early as I could so that I would not be late.

Yes, I ended up losing a few minutes a few times per week by arriving at places early. Yes, I ended up getting lost and arriving a few minutes late at times. But I had no choice other than to accept those things, and having no choice in a prison of choices is like that first breath of fresh air when the prison doors are opened and you are set free.

I left my place, got in my car, drove to my destination, and walked in without being distracted by anything on my phone. It seems that the attention, peace, and perhaps even the freedom, I had given up in exchange for easy navigation was of far greater value.

Another surprising discovery was that, after a year of living in Pittsburgh, I know the city far better than I thought. Maybe that is how these apps hold our attention. They provide us with value so we keep using them, and then we forget we can live without them. It turns out, I was able to find my way to almost any place in the city without using a map app.

I also learned some practical things that might be helpful for anyone who would like to try the experiment, and I highly recommend trying it.

  1. Watch for one-way streets. A few times, I used my computer to look up directions to a destination, and then wrote the directions down in a notebook. However, on my way back home, I realized that one of the streets I came from was a one-way street, so I couldn’t go back the same way I came. Instead, I had to find another way which is not always easy in a city like Pittsburgh where the streets are not laid out in nice blocks or squares.
  2. If you do get lost, the trick is to remember landmarks and keep circling until you get back on track. When you see a landmark, you will know whether or not you already surveyed that area for the street you are looking for; “there’s that church, so I already tried that street and it wasn’t the right way. Next, I’ll try this other street.”
  3. Pay attention to the name of the street you are on. It was not as hard to remember directions as I thought it would be, but as a consequence of nobody needing to know street names anymore, many intersections do not have street signs. It helps to get in the habit of spotting them when they are there at one intersection because you may not get them at the next.

Right at end of the challenge, I was on my way to church. As though God wanted to remind me of the blessings that he can bestow on us through our tools, I ran into a situation in which several roads were closed for a 5k race.

I passed by one closed street, thinking, “I’ll just take the next one over,” only to find that it was closed to, and so was the next one. After some hesitation, I realized I would be late for Mass, where I was scheduled to sing in the choir, if I just tried to find my way instead of using the map app on my phone.

I gave in. I used the map app. I arrived at Mass just in time. The benefit of using the app was worth the cost that time.

Attention is in high demand. Whether app creators are intentionally vying for that attention or not, they captivate us. Quite often, they hold us captive. Typically, they want to. It’s how they make money.

If the cost of using an app is the loss of freedom or the diminishment of morality - both of which occur readily once our attention is held captive - then the cost outweighs the benefits. If we are careful about how and when we use our devices, about the attention we give them, then perhaps we can maintain our freedom and morality and still have the benefits they provide.

The important thing is that we remain watchful and intentional so that we continue to own our tools rather than allowing our tools, or their inventors, to own us.