Week 30: Claudio Aporta & Eric Higgs (2005) Global Positioning Systems, Inuit Wayfinding, and the Need for a New Account of Technology

In late March we met to discuss a fascinating collaborative paper by philosopher Eric Higgs and anthropologist Claudio Aporta. The paper details their joint analysis of the recent adoption of GPS technology by the Inuit of Igloolik in Northern Canada. This paper is doubling interesting as both [1] a particular case study of culture and cognition; and [2] in regards to the interdisciplinary research methods necessary for tackling the topic of culture and cognition.

I have previously discussed this paper several times on this blog (see weeks 10 and 23). Here I will limit my discussion to several  key points: [1] some general details of the case study; [2] how the way GPS devices impact on Inuit wayfinding capacities matches with a broader range of research into this topic; and [3] my uneasiness with the “device paradigm” and Heideggerian approaches in philosophy of technology.


Inuit wayfinding and the Impact of GPS devices

Firstly, wayfinding and navigating in Igloolik in Northern Canada is complicated for a number of reasons. Igloolik is close enough to the North Pole to render magnetic compasses useless. Also, the harsh and extremely cold environmental conditions up in the Arctic Circle tend to break a wide variety of other forms of technology. Additionally, the tundra and snow fields present a shifting and generally featureless environment, which also makes navigating even more complicated. Faced with such conditions, the local Inuit people have devised highly sophisticated set of wayfinding techniques: these involve utilising various kinds of naturefacts (objects in the environment utilised for a purpose) – particularly wind directions, but also animal behaviour, snow drift patterns and types, and astronomical phenomena. Aporta and Higgs (2005, pp. 731-732) note that this cultural wayfinding knowledge is acquired through a laborious apprenticeship style learning method.

Recently, since the mid-90s, GPS devices have started to be increasingly used by a number of individuals at Igloolik. GPS devices are a particularly interesting kind of cognitive artefact in regards to how human agents tackle wayfinding tasks. When tackling a wayfinding task a human agent usually mediates between [i] perceptual features of the environment, [ii] internal cognitive resources, and [iii] potentially external representations, e.g. a map (Ishikawa 2016, p. 120):

ishikawa 3 point model

The agent coordinates these external and internal resources in conjunction with the environment. But when a human agent uses a GPS device there is no need to engage in this coordination activity. Aporta and Higgs note that, to some extent, the agent can be cut off from their environment (2005, pp. 743-744). The agent does not need to have any knowledge about their local environment. Their contention is supported by a range of behavioural research into how GPS devices impact on the cognitive capacities of WEIRDs (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic). Both ethnographic and experimental work shows that agents who use GPS devices do much worse on a range of tests and measures relating to spatial perception and memory (Gramann et al 2017; Ishikawa et al 2008; Leshed et al 2008). For instance, when Toru Ishikawa and colleagues (2008) studied three groups of walkers who navigated a route using different wayfinding technologies/techniques: [1] direct route experience with guide; [2] GPS devices; and [3] paper map. They conducted a memory test afterwards and this showed that the GPS users had the worst memories.


Against the Device Paradigm

Although I am a big fan of this paper, I am less enthused with Aporta and Higgs usage of the “device paradigm”. This is based on the philosopher of technology, Albert Borgmann, who takes a Heideggerian approach that splits technology into two categories: devices and focal things. According to this binary distinction, focal things are cultural products that lead to a bodily and social engagement in the world. In contrast, devices just achieve a function and can isolate an individual from the world. A quick example: a hearth achieves the goal of heating but also brings agents into communication with one another and the world. In contrast, central heating achieves this goal but it also separates the agents from their engagement with the world. So, the idea here is that the traditional wayfinding techniques of the Inuit lead to a deeper engagement with the world; whereas the GPS devices separate the agent from the world.

My issue here is not with this last point. It is evident from the excellent ethnographic research collected by Aporta and Higgs, and supported by numerous behavioural and cognitive studies on WEIRDs, that the GPS devices “outsource” the cognitive task (as Menary 2012 puts it) to such a great extent that this has a detrimental effect. In Igloolik this has led to some accidents because people who rely too much on GPS devices and have not acquired an adequate knowledge of how to get around safely without them. This is mirrored in WEIRDs. Greg Milner has collected an extensive range of cases where people have overly relied on GPS devices without questioning them or paying attention to their environments properly – and in some cases this has led to deaths.

However, I think this point can be made without having to buy into the Heideggerian-esque distinction here between devices and focal things. I think that this distinction is unsavoury because it implies that only if people have to put in a certain amount of effort are they properly engaged in the world. Whilst effort and concentration are certainly important,this point is taken too far here and leads to a romanticism suggesting that only certain more laborious older technologies are allowed. This is not appropriate for a number of reasons:

  1. It is completely arbitrary: Why is the technology, say of the medieval period, more in touch with being in the world than of other periods?
  2. Hypocrisy: These points are often made by academics who have a huge amount of their basic everyday needs automatised for them – they do not need to seek and build shelter, acquire sustenance and other resources, etc. Cumulative human culture is awesome in regards to how it has created a buffer against starvation and other maladies and vagaries of nature (see weeks 4, 10, 15, and 17 for discussions of cumulative culture).
  3. Cognition Distributed in Time: Related to this, the discussion of focal things also strikes me as being dangerously close to a denial of the cumulative aspect of human culture. The Ratchet effect (Tomasello 1999) by which there is the high-fidelity transmission of innovations and cultural products allows humans to produce more and more sophisticated cognitive tools for tackling their everyday tasks. And thus able to tackle tasks that would not otherwise be possible without what I have referred to (Gillett 2018), following Michael Tomasello (1999), as “virtual collaboration” – the collaboration of individuals vertically across generations to incrementally tackle a problem (also see our discussion of Boyd et al 2011 in week 10).

We can consider this last point in regards to wayfinding. Ed Hutchins (1995) notes that the general abstract questions in navigation are: “where am I?” and “Given that I am at point A how do I get to point B?”. However, a contemporary agent is not actually faced by these questions; instead, they approach these epistemic issues mediated by accumulated cultural knowledge and tools. I.e. the questions become “given this map [or some other wayfinding technology/knowledge] where am I? and how do I get from here to there using this map?”. This case highlights that how humans will engage in the world using technology to do everyday things will inevitably alter as we change the very task space in which we doing things. The distinction between focal things and devices, I argue, creates an unwanted split in this ongoing process that is not helpful.

However, all of the above points are not to say that there are not serious issues with how GPS devices do seem to be undermining vital wayfinding expertise – not just amongst the Inuit but also amongst WEIRDs as well. But this Heideggerian approach does not actually help resolve this matter. Instead, actual practical engagement does and I will mention two points in this regard to conclude.

Firstly, the Inuit elders themselves identified the problem. And although there is an increasing uptake of GPS devices by members of the community, the elders have also been able to use the GPS devices as a means through which to teach the old wayfinding techniques. Arguably, a combination of two forms of wayfinding techniques allows for a certain level of resilience and also for more flexible behaviour. For instance, GPS devices can enable hunters to engage in dead reckoning when out navigating ice floes (Aporta and Higgs 2005, pp. 733-734). This helps to conserve fuel. However, knowledge of ice floe types, sea current patterns, and animal behaviour is also important because this can inform the agents when to disregard the GPS instructing them to take the shortest path.

Secondly, the first point above discussions a degeneracy and flexibility at the level of what Richard Menary (2007) calls “cognitive practices” – sets of behavioural repertories utilising acquired cultural knowledge and products for tackling cognitive tasks [I have a paper in preparation on this topic; also see week 32 (forthcoming) for a longer discussion of degeneracy]. But researchers have also been investigating how to alter the GPS device itself in order to scaffold a better engagement with the world. Gramann and colleagues (2017) have conducted an interesting pilot study in which WEIRD participants navigated through a vast virtual city using GPS devices which either gave standard directional instructions (the control group) or gave modified instructions that also included incidental landmark descriptions at key junctions and places along the route. In subsequent trials in which agents then had to navigate around the city without the use of the GPS they found that those from the modified instructions group did significantly better. This group also did better in regards to a range of other measures of spatial reasoning and memory.






Aporta, C. & Higgs, E. (2005) Satellite Culture: Global Positioning Systems, Inuit Wayfinding, and the Need for a New Account of Technology. Current Anthropology 46 (5), 729-753

Boyd, R., Richerson, P. J. & Henrich, J. (2011) The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. PNAS 108, 10918–10925.

Gramann, K., Hoepner, P. & Karrer-Gauss, K. (2017) Modified Navigation Instructions for Spatial Navigation Assistance Systems Lead to Incidental Spatial Learning. Frontiers in Psychology 8, 193.

Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Ishikawa, T., Fujiwarab, H., Imaic, O. & Okabe, A. (2008) Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience. Journal of Environmental Psychology 28, 74-82.

Ishikawa, T. (2016) Maps in the Head and Tools in the Hand: Wayfinding and Navigation in a Spatially Enabled Society. (pp. 115-134) in R. H. Hunter, L. A. Anderson & B. L. Belza (2016) Community Wayfinding: Pathways to Understanding. Springer.

Leshed, G. et al (2008) In-Car GPS Navigation: Engagement with and Disengagement from the Environment. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Florence.

Menary, R. (2007) Cognitive Integration: Mind and Cognition Unbounded. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Menary, R. (2012) Cognitive practices and cognitive character. Philosophical Explorations, 15(2), 147-164.

Tomasello, M. (1999) The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. London: Harvard University Press

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