Exploration and the App

They found themselves drifting wayward in the Pacific Ocean. Nothing guiding them but the commanding currents beneath. Though their voyage from Panama to Peru wasn’t going as planned. They were lost. Falling just short of Inca homeland.

However, on March 14th, 1535, Tomas de Berlanga and his crew eventually found land. Moreover, he had discovered the “Enchanted Isles”. Better known today as the Galapagos Archipelago.

 

panama map

Map courtesy of the University of Texas – Originally drafted by the Central Intelligence Agency

 

No matter what romanticised vision or philosophical spin you put on it, getting lost has always meant discovery. We get ‘lost in the moment’, ‘lose ourselves in the music’ and are always told to ‘go off the beaten path’. Whether literally, figuratively or spiritually, we discover things about the world and ourselves when we least expect it.

With the advent of GPS-enabled smart devices and the plethora of review sites, an exact guide to the world is now in every pocket. Our ever present digital assistant pinpoints your exact location and can offer us an optimised route to get wherever we need to go (well, most of the time). Any possible place you can think of has been rated and reviewed. Whether it’s avid members of online communities eager to gain status and authority or stung consumers simply warning others of a terrible experience ahead.

Essentially, in this digital age, the world has been mapped a second time. Layer-upon-layer of digital content has been added to what we already knew of the world, mapping not only geography but now experience. So the question remains…

Has the art of getting lost forever been, well, lost? Or are we now able to discover more than ever?

 

The Currency of Availability Heuristics

It’s safe to say we’re lost without technology. Which, ironically, makes getting lost pretty difficult. Sure we get lost whilst using navigation devices, but that’s an example of not finding your way on a predetermined path. Which obviously can be pretty frustrating. More importantly, it can blind you to everything else. If you’re fixated on getting to a specific point, are you going to stop to take in the sights? Busy taking pictures of the sunset instead of being present in the moment.

These specific points we fixate ourselves upon are now easier than ever to find. A quick search on your device of any place imaginable will throw back an abundance of information. A mix of factual and user generated. Whilst one can be mostly trusted, the other is truly subjective.

We are simply inundated with information about where to go and how to get there. Sites like Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor offer us a play-by-play account of other people’s experiences and opinions on the world. We’re able to easily digest all of this information. Now, rather than visiting a place and letting our minds decide for itself, we’ll carry, in some part, preconceived notions of what it should be like. A sort of virtual experience paradox.

Oh, Jane loved Portugal. That means we’ll love it too.
Dave gave this restaurant 5 stars, it must be good!

Availability heuristics could be seen as polluting the true reasons for exploration. Ratings, reviews, recommendations, the very currency our travel industries thrive and survive on, are the noise that sounds out why we explore in the first place.

Admittedly, they give us a solid foundation on which to start our journey. But as is always the case, we can very easily become over-reliant and use all of the technology at our disposal. Blinded by the power of it all with only our technological guide dog to lead us to Jane’s favourite Portuguese wine bar.

 

The Great App Rush

The app economy is no stranger to providing exploration assistance. There’s a plethora of ‘exploration apps’ to choose from. It was one thing to research your journey on a desktop but the prevalence of mobile technology means there’s no excuse to get lost.

Take an app like komoot. Their promise to you? “Explore more of the Great Outdoors”. That’s why they built it, right? To enable you to explore. At its core, it’s a navigation app with planning capabilities, tracking tools and social functionality laid over the top.

Whilst maps have enabled us to plot your route for a long time, all be it not as easily as is done with the app, it’s power to to enhance the user’s ability to get from A to B is undeniable. My question is, however, is that now all that we want? To rigorously plot every route, track every data point like an Olympian and share our every experience with the entire world? To simply get from A to B in the quickest time possible and let everyone know about it? We are almost too busy checking our data and sharing our journeys to enjoy the true reasons to explore.

I guess the problem I have is with their promise. ‘Explore more of the Outdoors’. This app is great for the sportsperson or avid enthusiasts wanting to nail an interesting but pre-trodden route. But that’s just not exploration to me.

A different example is FATMAP, a ski navigation tool that provides end-to-end resort information to skiers. Its 3D world enables skiers to virtually experience the mountain and assess many risks associated with the sport.

This app can be seen as an ‘exploration app’. The 3D aspect truly lets you understand the environment you’re in and the terrain intelligence features ensure you can behave appropriately under the guise of Mother Nature.

 

fatmap screenshots

 

FATMAP’s promise to us? ‘Know more. Do more.’ I think this is closer to how technology can actually benefit the explorer. By providing the information they need to assess the world for themselves. Then, most importantly of all, figuring out their own route.

We should look at exploration apps, then, as assistants. Extensions of our exploratory nature, further satisfying our inherent need to be outdoors by giving us reliable and consistent information. Enhancing our ability to do more. Less navigation, more guidance.

 

Why We Explore

Exploring on all levels is changing, no matter what your opinion on the effects of technology. From the times when getting lost to our ancestors meant life and death to a time now where getting lost can be a cathartic and life-changing experience. The argument whether technology has a positive influence on human exploration, I feel, will always be why we explore. To discover things about ourselves and the world.

 

Can we discover things for ourselves in a world that is continually being experientially mapped?

In the case of the traveller who uses recommendation engines to guide him to the best restaurants and haunches, I say throw away your TripAdvisor account. Let yourself get lost in the many cultures of the world and decide for yourself, rather than letting the fear of missing out take you on someone else’s journey. Our exploration apps then perhaps should just assist us and not lead the way.

A word must always be said for throwing away the guidebooks. An old African proverb states that ‘to get lost is to learn the way’. Whilst technology can form the perfect foundation for us to start our journeys, try and leave room to welcome the unexpected.