I looked at my watch after the English gentleman walked away. The half hour discussion had begun with my question, “Excuse me sir, could you please tell me about places to see in this town?” I had to stop this person and ask him because unlike anyone else my age, I lacked a 3G-enabled phone with maps. Liverpool had just started to feel the right place to walk around and explore.

Paper maps have been in use since ages, but there has been a sure and steady shift in the cartographic terrain since the Global Positioning System (GPS) was made public in 1995. The system’s ability to direct users at the right time andquickly come up with new, shorter routes made it extraordinarily useful for the general public. It became a guide to reach far-flung locations and explore places that were once a bother to find.

The work that went into making GPS as we know it today began in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik. With the simple use of the Doppler Effect - the frequency of the signals emitted by the satellite were higher when the satellite approached and lower as it moved away - American scientists could track the satellite from a fixed location on the globe. In the 1960s, the US Navy developed the six-satellite TRANSIT navigation system to track its submarines. The present GPS now uses 27 satellites orbiting almost 20,000 kilometres above the surface of the earth, each circling the earth twice every 24 hours, and their orbits so arranged that each location on Earth, at all times, is under the surveillance of at least 4 satellites.

The penetration of mobile phones and their technologies into our lives over the last decade effected a surge in data usage. Service providers, who wished to capitalize on the economic and financial prospects of the value added and mobile Internet services, anticipated various applications and a new class of services based on the knowledge of a mobile user’s location. However, the use of GPS to provide a mobile user’s location was nonexistent till a few years ago due to the high costs of additional hardware and their deployment. Thus, research in mobile positioning systems began receiving significant attention. 

The beginnings of mobile positioning were modest. In 1996, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an order necessitating all mobile operators to provide wireless emergency services to their customers. Initially called the Enhanced 911 (E-911) service, this was introduced with a view to improve responsiveness of public safety and emergency services agencies by transmitting the caller’s number and current location information. But what began as emergency services soon became an avenue for revenue and quickly evolved into location based services and interactive e‑commerce. Now users, in addition to finding the shortest paths to places they wish to reach, can also receive advertisements of stores and services around their current locations, parents can receive messages notifying them where their children are, and manufacturers can track their goods at all times.

Mobile positioning technologies have now reached a stage where, similar to GPS, a mobile user can be located with an accuracy of a few meters. The implications of these technologies are multi-fold. To begin with, they have drastically reduced the time taken for a user to be informed. Travellers can access all related information on their handheld devices as and when they wish. People now have more places to go to and have to reach there on time, which in more ways than one means that the days of struggling with paper maps are as good as over.

Secondly, the proliferation of smartphones with maps and information applications has swiftly modified the definitions of exploration and discovery. These applications utilize the user’s location information by means of mobile positioning and/or GPS and, from finding hotels and taxis to ratings of eating joints and pubs close to the user’s present location, cater to almost all the information needs of a tourist. Tourists willing to spend wisely and know more about their destination beforehand have allowed the emergence of a new culture where tourists now depend on themselves and their smartphones rather than a tour guide or help from locals – a practice that was largely absent in the pre-mobile positioning and Google Maps era. Tourists are now self-dependent and equipped with tools to direct them to wherever they wish to reach. If only Christopher Columbus had the services of these technologies, world history would have been different!

The issue to contemplate now is how well this has turned out for studying places and their cultures through social interactions. Tourists have always been the ones using paper maps on a large scale. In his 2005 paper, “Information and Communication Technologies in Tourism”, Andrew J. Frew studies tourists and their use of maps in Zurich, Switzerland. He highlights the fact that tourism is a social activity, with tourists generally travelling in groups that centre on a map or a guide book. Collecting and combining information, involving planning and learning the surroundings, is the central activity that helps develop social interaction within the group.

Yet, even a group collaborating to combine information would not have all that is needed. This is where, generally, social interactions outside the group, with locals, or exploration help fill the information gap. The Internet and mobile positioning now provide all the required information and have rendered the first option (interaction with locals) ineffective. Although these technologies have expanded and eased the distribution of information and knowledge, they have somehow also placed new barriers to social communications and direct interactions between tourists and locals.

Exploration too may well just be a dying art. Exploration is about studying the life of a city, which involves not just maps and guide books, but its people, local stories,urban legends, myths, history of its streets; the list is endless. The cultureof a city is created through communication among its residents, and between its residents and outsiders. Culture is a part of how common knowledge is shared. Exploring a city does not mean just looking at buildings and accumulating historical facts. Nevertheless, these have become the only activities most tourists now indulge in since their smartphones have eliminated almost all chancesof them getting lost or looking up and, just out of curiosity, asking somebody on the streets. Denis Wood (cartographer, artist and author of The Power of Maps and Rethinking the Power of Maps) says in his email

“New technologies have reduced interaction between tourists and locals, or even more generally between strangers of all kinds. I also believe they reduce interaction between people and the environment as a whole: people are less likely to explore what’s around them, say, to find a restaurant, when they can use an app to find one and Google Maps to take them there. Good-bye serendipitous encounter, surprising vista, interesting unknown little restaurant.”

Nothing compares to exploring a city than by roaming its streets and communicating with its people. But people new to a certain area now ask around for directions or information only when they are hopelessly lost and even the maps cannot seem to get them out, or if they do not have access to the Internet and location technologies in the first place. The latter reason explains why my friends and I had to ask ourway around Liverpool. All we had was a paper map we picked up for free at the bus station. The complexities of finding places were compounded by the limited information on the map, and the orientation and layout of the city. If it hadn’t been for road signs, finding our way through the maze of streets would have been exceptionally difficult. We just decided to start walking in the direction that we thought would lead us to River Mersey.

After almost an hour of strolling past the Town Hall and a statue of Queen Victoria, I decided to ask around. The first gentleman we stopped not only guided us to places to see around town but also shared with us the historic evolution of Liverpool.The interaction lasted almost 30 minutes and ranged from the history of places my friends and I came from in India to the gentleman’s experiences in Liverpool since his birth in the 1940s.

The kind of information that was shared amongst the four of us present at that moment would have been impossible if my friends and I would have been given directions by a GPS device. Personal recommendations about places are aplenty on blogs and websites on the Internet, but they aren’t as personal as standing in the middle of the footpath and chatting with a local. With a GPS, my attention would have been divided between looking at the screen to see where to turn next and looking up and enjoying the city’s early morning life.

Most tourists like my friends and I, whose schedules do not leave much time to wander, find it particularly hard enough to experience a city and its life systematically without being part of a tour group. Author Steven Johnson (Everything Bad is Good For You, Where Good Ideas Come From), who travels extensively around the world, mostly on short trips lasting not more than a couple of days, blogs about his ways of exploring a city in the short time available

“So I basically just try to take a half day and evening, and just walk around with no real destination, letting the natural flow of the city direct me. In cities that I know quite well, like London or Paris, the fun of it is in figuring out the limits of my knowledge, in others it's more of a process of discovery.”

Phone maps and other Internet enabled apps do a good job of guiding people, turn-by-turn,through the main roads of the city. Tourists do not stray much off the course given on the digital maps; and thus the by-lanes and streets, which are the centre of most activities that make the everyday life of a city, remain unexplored. The people we stopped on the streets of Liverpool not only told us what to see in that town, but also where we would get the best pictures – sunset at Albert Dock, Billy Fury’s statue, Liverpool Cathedral, Metropolitan Cathedral. Google Maps would have shown us the way, but we would have missed asking a lady who Billy Fury was, how he brought the music scene to Liverpool, and how he faded into oblivion. If either of us would have had a phone with maps, we would surely have been able to see more places and buildings that single day we spend in Liverpool; and Liverpool would have been registered in our memories as just another city with a river, a museum, a very large cathedral, and people living in it. But are cities, their cultures, and their histories all about buildings, restaurants and rivers?

In 1763, Samuel Johnson, an English man of letters, said to the young James Boswell, who newly arrived in London,

“If you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts.”

Just following a map and walking by river Mersey, or seeing Liverpool Cathedral could not have helped us explore Liverpool. If it weren’t for the locals who we asked for directions and information, Liverpool’s life and culture as a musical port town would have remained unknown. If we hadn’t asked anybody about places and how to reach them, we wouldn’t have known whatever little we came to know about the people who make the city of Liverpool, and what makes them different from those who live in Manchester or London.

Ten years ago, there were no smartphones. Phone-based maps weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now. We may have learned to collaborate and interact on social networking sites, and how to make and keep friends over the Internet, but as we surrender to the GPS we are well on our way to losing the one skill that has helped us and our ancestors discover and explore cultures apart from one’s own – human interaction.


Animesh Chatterjee (2009). Online Benchmark for Network-based Mobile Positioning Technologies. MSc dissertation, MSc Communication Engineering, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, The University of Manchester, UK

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Trevisani, E.,& Vitaletti, A. (2004). Cell-ID location technique limits and benefits: an experimental study. IEEE Computer Society

Adusei, I. K.,Kyamakya, K.,& Jobmann, K. (2002). Mobile Positioning Technologies in Cellular Networks: An Evaluation of their Performance Metrics. Hannover, Germany: IEEE

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Denis Wood, John Fels. The Power of Maps. Guilford Press, New York.

Denis Wood, discussions via email.

Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks – How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Nicholas Carr (June 6, 2010). Are Google Maps and GPS bad for our brains?

Steven Johnson (Blog). www.stevenberlinjohnson.com

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