Continuing the look at what online maps might be doing to our mental ones, Naomi Day writes for OneZero, “Before I started using Google Maps, I was really good at space.” Day considers the differences in hometown experiences, comparing a years-ago childhood to a more recent visit.

Now that I’ve used Google Maps to figure out what time the grocery store closes, and searched for an Indian restaurant on my phone when I couldn’t find it on a first look around the neighborhood, I’m finding these digital memories are more readily accessible when I think about that area. My old spatial and physical memories of my hometown seem to be drifting away, even though I spent 18 years navigating without technology.

I’ve been trying to nail down my own experiences in this regard, mostly thinking about my own recent move to the St. Johns neighborhood here in Portland, Oregon. While I’d visited St. Johns a few times over the past two decades, I did need to refamiliarize myself using online maps (and, of course, my apartment hunt involved such maps).

Once I’d settled in here, though, looking at online maps of St. Johns became increasingly disorienting. Most of my time is spent in the heart of downtown St. Johns (it has one, as it used to be its own town, and mostly still sort of sees itself as one), so perhaps it’s simply the concentrated area, but I definitely have a strong mental map of the area now. I have to really focus for a minute if I have to call up a map of St. Johns.

That said, I’ve lost count of the number of times even later in those two decades where I’ve been unable to give someone directions when asked, but I’m also unable to say whether that’s because online maps blur and blunt my mental maps of Portland, or simply because unexpectedly being asked to be socially-performative in a helpful manner is too jarring for my anxious, autistic sensibiities.

Or, perhaps, it’s some combination of both, but which explanation accounts for being unable to tell someone where a named street is in Old Town, when the streets are alphabetical there?

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