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Trees, meet forest

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Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune/AP/File

(Read caption) An Interchange offers drivers options near Minneapolis.

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Turn-by-turn navigation is a marvel. Enter an address into a map application by Google, Yahoo, Apple, Garmin, or half a dozen other providers. You get the exact route to an exact address on the other side of the country. You are politely reminded of the turns to take. You can zoom in and out, see topography in 3-D, overlay satellite images, and mouse along at street level.

But as with anything involving digital search, the temptation is to go right to specifics without getting the big picture. I recently used turn-by-turn navigation in an unfamiliar city in the American Midwest. In the days before the Internet, I would have bought a map. Just the process of unfolding it would have provided an overview of the geography. Filmmakers call that an establishing shot. I didn’t need that with digital navigation. The nice computer lady talked me through the city. But I had no idea where I was – or what I was traveling past – until I got there.

Paper maps are clunky, easily torn, and often out of date. Travel used to entail missed exits and guesses about direction, which meant that gas station attendants were endowed with sagelike knowledge of streets and roadside attractions. There was a serendipitous aspect to that kind of trip taking – not unlike the way flipping the pages of a newspaper or wandering the shelves of a library can turn into a magical mystery tour. Poring over a state map, you’d stumble upon a Civil War battlefield near the barbecue joint that the Texaco guy recommended. 

The same thing is there digitally, of course, along with Yelp reviews and 1,700 articles about the battlefield. So don’t worry, this isn’t a paean to the good old days. It’s just that search technology too easily takes us to the very specific. We get exactly where we are going without knowing how we got there. If you’ll forgive the metaphorical leap, that’s not unlike what is happening with news – astounding access to trees but less and less attention to forests. 

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