Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 17, 2010


This is a continuation of the previous post. Scroll down to see it or click HERE to read the initial post.

Here I am in the streets of Rome, on my way to Nixonius’ house. At least I think I am. Getting to Rome from where I landed, down at Porto Ostia, was simple. One of the glories of the Empire is our system of roads, and the Via Ostia is typical: straight, well-paved, clearly marked with milestones that indicate the distance to Rome. All roads lead to Rome. But, once I reached the city itself, I found chaos. A vast city of unnamed streets and alleyways, and I only know the name of the area of the city where Nixonius lives, yet I must make my way to the House of Nixonius. I’ve had to ask someone at each intersection how to get to that part of the city. Then, once I reach the part of the city where he lives, Nixonius’ letter told me to find the local baths, then look for a tall apartment building nearby, and his house is next to that. I wish there were some better way to differentiate the streets from one another. I hope I find his place before it gets dark, or I’ll be lost in this giant maze of cobbled streets with no light. I wish he had drawn me a chart of the city in his letter ….

Let’s return now to the 21st Century and reflect on our traveler from an antique land. In all probability, a visitor from outside of Rome would not have been left entirely to his own devices. Nixonius might have had someone meet him at Ostia, or, if our traveler were a person of means, he would have brought a slave to go seek directions (and carry a torch at night) or engaged someone to guide him. The prospect of being a stranger wandering a vast metropolis unmarked by street signs and building numbers with the black, utter night of the world before street lighting would be daunting, indeed. William Manchester’s description of such a world is apt: A World Lit Only by Fire.

For most occupants of the ancient world’s cities, navigation was not quite so taxing, even though there were no street names or addresses. Most humans got around on foot, and their lives would have been bounded within an area one could cover in a couple of hours at the most. It is only in the machine era, with our ability to cover many miles at a clip, that we quickly reach areas with which we are unfamiliar. Whether we are casual travelers or business travelers or tourists, we have had maps nearly as long as we have had writing. Now we have geopositioning satellites, GPS. Our lives are perfect. We are never lost. Except, we don’t know where we are: we know where we’re going, but we’re clueless about our current location.

In the articles I referenced in the previous post, HERE, the author explores the likelihood that the availability of GPS and related navigation systems in “intelligent cars,” “intelligent buildings” and so forth may make highway signage obsolte and lead, eventually to the virtual elimination of our reliance on maps and similar analog “wayfinding systems.”

I say, “Nay, nay!”

I’ll make the obvious objection first, then get to the fine points about acculturation, which is my true topic, though that will require an additional post, tomorrow.

Let us take as an example, Venezia, la Serenissima, poised on the edge of the Adriatic, a warren of streets and canals. HERE is a map. Look at the map of Venice. There is no better example in this world of an instance in which GPS coordinates are misleading. One might be standing 100 feet from the la Fenice Theatre, but be on the other side of a block of buildings, with no obvious path of how to reach the other side of the block to reach the entrance.

In our analog world, there is nothing more satisfying than the act of unfolding the big map of Venice and pointing to the thin line of  a blind alley, saying with satisfaction, “There. That’s the place. The best baccala in the known universe!” Friends, a GPS won’t get you there. “We just duck under this low archway and go down this alley that looks like it ends in the Adriatic.” Only The Counselor could have found it, with directions from the late, lamented Gourmet Magazine and my trusty map of Venice. Well, all that and luck, to boot. We sat in a tiny ristorante, beyond the reach of GPS’ ability to find us, and ate the nectar of the gods.

If one’s only need is to get from the airport to the hotel or to the scene of today’s shoot, GPS is fine.

In my business: shooting and producing video — there’s a lot of flying in and out of unfamiliar cities, assembling the crew and the gear and dashing to the shoot location. Most of this work takes place in cities where all that’s needed is a street address. We’re late. It’s raining. We’re in San Francisco, in a rental van driving along some urban beltway. A woman’s voice with an Australian accent emerges from the glow of the GPS: “Drive 8.5 miles and exit.” We get there, and get the interview.

However, if we had looked at a map instead of just using GPS to GET THERE, we might have noticed that two streets over, all the streets end at what appears to be the edge of a bluff, and by walking over there, we’d be likely to get a panoramic view of San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop. Probably, we have a local grip along, or someone to tell us that. Or, we might have a field production manager who bothered to figure that out in advance. If we don’t, we’re going to drive on to the next GPS coordinates and miss the Money Shot that would’ve made the show. Like this:

Gold Mine Brad Nixon 019 (640x449)

An open pit gold mine in the high desert of Nevada.

There’s no cell phone service there, but the GPS works. It’s not difficult to find the route, because there is one highway — I-80 — and there’s only an exit every 12 miles or so. Our landmark is a distant mountain, then turn right. We’re looking for a hole in the ground that’s a mile wide and a quarter of a mile deep. It’s visible from the moon. Trucks half the size of my house are hauling loads of gold ore that weigh nearly a million pounds each. Guess what? We find the place without a nav.

There’s more to navigating than finding an address. There is a level of understanding “The Picture:” the environment that surrounds us. It’s an essential component of dealing with the world that surrounds us. That will be tomorrow’s conclusion of this series.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017



  1. _ “Just Do as the Romans Do” _

    I was wondering why, with all of Ancient Rome’s manifold accomplishments in government organization and civic building projects, it did not occur to them to make city maps and street signs.

    Then it hit me: imagine that you’re Graccus 2000 years ago, walking with your lovely Portia in a part of Rome that you are not familiar with. You need to find the nearest Roman Bath. So, you pull out your trusty map of the Great City. But, you struggle. “Dio mio! What a maze of crooked streets!” Little Portia prods “Why don’t we ask for directions?” Now, conqueror of all lands, builder of great cities, master of heaven and earth, but — can’t read a simple map? Unthinkable. Ask for directions? Can’t risk the shame. So, Rome decided to forget maps and the crushing embarassment to the male ego that they bring. We will ALL simply have to ask for directions.

    I have been taught this lesson many times by my wife. However, I have still not learned it. Case in point: the Paris metro system.

    My wife and I exit a metro station from ground below, pop our heads up like a couple of ground hogs and look around to get our bearings. We want to go to a bistro that I read about; but it’s in a quartier that I don’t know well. I take out my trusty Plan de Paris. “Mais oui,” I cry out. “What a warren of narrow, curving streets!” No majestic landmarks are apparent to orient me. I swivel round and round, nodding up and down between map, buildings, and steets without signs. Minutes pass. Vertigo sets in.

    My wife then says, “Why don’t we just ask for directions?” I protest, “No, no, I think I’m getting it. Just a little longer.” She spots a friendly local, goes over, and makes inquiry. She comes back in a few seconds, smiling. “It’s right over there!” She helps lift me up from the pavement, my head still spinning.

    Sometimes the ancient way is the best way.


    • Nice. I like the idea that male Romans shared the same attributes with us modern males: “Don’t worry, I’ll GET there!”


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