The days of navigation solely via a compass and paper map are gone, having moved over for GPS devices and smartphone apps. GPS technology has grown so much in the last decade that the publication of paper maps has dwindled, and traditional map publishers are turning to digital maps.In many ways, digital maps and GPS technology have improved on traditional maps, in that they allow the user to pinpoint their location and calculate directions, and they can be updated in minutes through downloads. They are available on demand and, in many cases, free of charge. A paper map needs to be re-purchased each year, and any updates will have to wait until the next edition. If the user is lost and does not have a good sense of direction, it can take some brainwork to find their location on a paper map. Sometimes a paper map will not show minor or seasonal roads, or minor roads will not be named on the map, and it can take some guesswork to work out which one pertains to their location. A digital map, on the other hand, can be zoomed in on to reveal names of roads, and an icon will indicate the user’s location.GPS technology, though only having been in common use in the last decade, has been around in primitive form since the 1980s. It was invented for use by the US Department of Defense, and today is powered by 24 satellites orbiting the Earth. Early car-based models debuted in the mid- and late 1990s, and were expensive and not always accurate. It was not until the early 2000s that car-based satellite navigation became common and affordable. In the last few years, they have become a standard feature of new cars, and the technology is readily available in handheld devices and on smartphones. People use it to get around, as well as for games such as geocaching.The question that many ask today is whether digital maps and GPS navigation have made paper maps obsolete. The digital technology is certainly more convenient. However, the dependency of the modern world on GPS technology can be compared to reliance on calculators: it is so easy to push a few buttons for an answer that it takes a conscious effort to maintain maths skills. With GPS technology, the user is shown a charted direction and guided straight to the destination. It requires no map reading, orientation by analysing surroundings, or asking directions.
However, what happens when the device suffers a technical fault, the battery dies, or the signal disappears? If the user is stranded, they will have to resort to a traditional map stashed in the glove box, or ask someone to point them in the right direction. If out hiking in wilderness, the user could do best to have the GPS as well as a paper map, as a handheld GPS, with its tiny screen, will not give them a good picture of the wider area. In this way, the paper map steps in where the technology fails. Unless technology becomes so advanced that it is foolproof, it will never be a complete replacement for a paper map. The paper map is a safety net, an old friend to turn to when things go wrong, and a challenge to keep personal orientation skills strong.