The Reliability Debate: When Technology Fails, Do Paper Maps Prevail?

Over the years, maps have progressed, regressed, evolved, and everything in between. When we look back on the history of maps, cartography is an ever-changing field of study with new developments coming to light each year. Today, we’ve come a long way from those 10-foot-long foldable maps that seemed to take a degree in origami to replace it in your car’s console. Somehow, we went from this headache-inducing, time-consuming ordeal for directions to typing a location into our cell phones and following Suzi and the little red dot. 

But, what happens when Suzi isn’t responding, the route isn’t updating, and your phone’s signal is too weak to pinpoint your next turn?

In this blog post, we’re diving into the age-old debate of reliability: When technology fails, do paper maps prevail?

Asked, and answered!

Points for Technology

  1. One of the biggest perks of digital mapping technology is its convenience. People tend to carry their mobile devices with them almost 24/7, and as a result, always have a map in their pocket. 
  2. Digital maps use simple, easily identifiable icons to represent popular landmarks such as gas stations, restaurants, and hotels. 
  3. Many digital map apps have created third-party integrations to streamline planning and optimize the user experience. 
  4. Many are free to use, such as Google Maps, making them the more affordable option. 
  5. Digital maps can be updated more easily than paper maps and often include real-time changes due to roadblocks and accidents. 
  6. Many digital maps offer dynamic viewing options to see different versions of the same map.
  7. There’s an added safety and user-friendly benefit that comes with digital maps as many are programmed with the ability to relay instructions using robotic voices. This alleviates the need to look away from the road or stop to read a map when traveling, increasing safety and efficiency. 
  8. Digital maps aren’t restricted to specific areas. You can sit in New York City and view a detailed map of Da Nang, Vietnam in real time. 
  9. Using these maps requires little to no skill as they’re easy to follow and simple. 
  10. Many online maps are created to optimize the user experience and are more interactive. 
  11. There’s greater data integration when it comes to digital maps such as weather indicators.
  12. Digital maps are widely accessible, with 85.74% of the world’s population owning smartphones. 

Points against Technology

  1. These maps also require storage space in the form of memory on your SD card or smartphone.
  2. If you’re visiting an area with poor cell reception and no cell towers, you’ll face the risk of getting lost as these maps are accessed online. 
  3. You’ll only have access to the map so long as your smartphone is functioning (that goes for operating systems and battery life).
  4. With more and more people turning to online platforms for everyday tasks, including shopping and studying, data privacy concerns are rising. 
  5. While these maps often consider larger volumes of data, accessing this data can give rise to licensing and copyright issues. 
  6. The accuracy of routes given by digital maps is questionable at times. We’ve all experienced being sent on a wild goose chase by Suzi hearing the dreaded “recalculating”. 
  7. There is a question of over-reliance on digital mapping technology. By relying on an online map and robotic voice telling us where to go, people lose their basic navigational skills and aren’t always aware of their surroundings. 

Points for Paper

  1. There’s a level of reliability around not having to worry about how strong a signal you have or whether or not you have enough data for the map to function. 
  2. The lack of technological dependence gives people the opportunity to have an unplugged vacation or getaway.
  3. Because these taps take longer to make, they’re created with more detail and are supported by research. 
  4. With proper care, paper maps are the more durable choice as they can be water-resistant and less delicate. 
  5. You don’t have to worry about entering any personal information to gain access to the map, eliminating any privacy concerns. 

Points against Paper

  1. Have to be purchased from a store and can be expensive. 
  2. Paper maps need to be stored and can take up space. If you’re visiting multiple destinations, you may also need to carry a few with you. 
  3. Updating these maps is no easy task and often results in older versions becoming redundant and a waste of paper. It’s also a lengthy process.
  4. Because they can’t move and are limited to the space on the paper, these maps are limited to specific areas.
  5. These maps involve a bit of a learning curve as some can be difficult to interpret.
  6. You don’t have to worry about running out of battery power while trying to reach your destination. 

So, where does that leave us?

It’s clear that digital maps are the safest and easiest way to find your way around unfamiliar areas. When traveling and planning your next trip, they’re easier to take with you for the ride than paper maps that take up space and could take an hour to fold back up. 

However, that being said, there’s also value in taking the old-school approach to navigation. Learning to read a map used to be considered a basic life skill, one that we’re seeing put into practice less frequently. If you’re traveling to a more remote destination, want to switch offline for a while, or simply want the nostalgia of what this older map form may bring, then paper maps are the way to go. 

While the points heavily weigh in favor of digital maps and the future of this technology, if it had to boil down to the sole question of reliability – Paper maps take the prize. They are durable, incredibly accurate, and don’t rely on anything other than the paper they’re printed on to get you to where you need to go. 

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