Can’t Anyone Here Read a Map?

In losing our ability to navigate, we've lost all sense of our surroundings — both in physical space and in public-policy debate

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The embarrassing debacle of our government’s near death experience has all of us wondering where we’ve gone wrong in the way that we run our country. Maybe it’s the fault of our GPS.

Shortly before our daughter went off to college, she was riding in the car while her mom tried to navigate using the car’s built-in GPS system. Watching all this made the teenager wonder aloud, “What did you do before GPS, when you only had MapQuest?” My wife explained that, believe it or not, there was a time even before MapQuest when we had actual, physical maps that we carefully unfolded and studied to figure out how to get places.

It turns out that we’re paying a price for all that convenience of mindlessly following the directions rationed out to us by our GPS. Neuroscientists have studied the question and concluded that we’re losing our ability to make “mental maps” of where we are, how we got here and where we’re going. We’re losing our sense of our surroundings, of what’s to our left and to our right, and we’re losing the benefits we sometimes reap when we simply get lost and stumble onto something that teaches us about places we didn’t even know were there.

(MORE: Google Maps: Now Helping Your Boss Track Your Every Move)

How we learn from the media about public-policy issues has an arc similar to the move from maps to MapQuest to GPS. There was a time when we learned what was happening in Washington by reading our local newspaper or watching one of the three broadcast TV networks. Because there were so few outlets for national news, they had to address the needs and appetites of a wide range of audience if they wanted to attract the advertisers who paid the bills.

This was a grossly inefficient way of getting our news. We had to wade through all sorts of stories that we wouldn’t have sought out or asked to be covered in the first place. We were exposed to points of view we didn’t agree with. We heard about things we didn’t always want to know. It was like having all those maps in our glove compartment showing us entire states and regions, instead of just telling us how to get to where we’d already decided we wanted to go.

Now things are different. We have the great luxury of preselecting what we want to hear or read about. We have a pretty good sense of what we’re likely to learn by turning to Fox News or MSNBC before we even find the remote. And in case even those alternatives are too broad and threatening, we can go online to hear what Glenn Beck has to say. Or, better yet, just limit ourselves to our chosen friends on Facebook or whom we choose to follow on Twitter.

(MORE: Shutdown Highlights Basic Fact: Most of Government Is ‘Nonessential’)

But as efficient as this self-selected news is, it’s also contributing to the major miscalculations our political leaders are making on our behalf in Washington. You might wonder what Ted Cruz and the small group of Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives were thinking when they took us to the brink of disaster for ill-defined objectives that changed daily. They seemed to be listening only to other true believers, whether in the media or among their constituents, as they confirmed one another’s prejudices. If so, it’s understandable that they convinced themselves not only that they were right, but also that everyone who mattered agreed with them. They don’t have a mental map of where the country really is. They are following only the directions given to them by their preselected GPS.

They may not have taken us to the brink of disaster yet, but Democrats are just as vulnerable to the same sort of limited perspective, and need to take seriously that there is a group of citizens who feel anxious and angry and frustrated with their situation in life. And they’re none too happy with what their federal government is doing about it. Whether the specific tactics or the particular legislative goals are sensible or not, we need to address the concerns of people all over the map, not just a narrow group that thinks like us.

I’m not about to give up my GPS. It makes my life better in many ways. It makes it easier for me to get places. But, recognizing its limitations, I also need to take a plain old-fashioned map out from time to time and get my bearings. The cornucopia of modern media holds out the promise of making it easier for all of us to learn more things more easily than ever before in history. But we also need to make the special effort that is now required to stumble across things we don’t particularly want to hear. It may be the only way to know where we are, and it may just help us make better decisions about where we’re going.