Monday, November 12, 2012

Getting Around

One of the most general critiques of technologies is that as we come to rely on them, we become more helpless when they fail or we find oursleves without them.

One of the easiest examples is the technology of GPS. With a GPS one is largely spared the burden of ever being lost. The tradeoff is that if one is not careful, one will also lose the joy of knowing one's way around.

I had a stark experience of this downside recently. I was at the doctor's office and I was going next to a third-party facility for routine bloodwork.

Not remembering exactly how far down the road the facility was, I asked the check-out woman for directions. This woman was probably in her sixties and so she has certainly had to get around for many years before GPS was widely available. Nevertheless, she first appeared flustered, then asked if I had a GPS I could enter an address into. I did, so she handed me a flyer with the address circled on it and sent me on my way.

The thing was as I discovered momentarily the place was on the same street a mere two traffic lights farther down. To have entered the address into my phone and waited for it to tell me to go a thousand feet before turning left would have been quite the opposite of thinking.

But that's just the point. With GPS we have essentially outsourced the problem of navigation from our brains to our computers. That has obvious benefits, but the cost of not being able to distinguish simple cases from complex ones or of not building a mental map of our surroundings at all are significant. It is also apparent from this example that just as muscles atrophy from idleness, we can lose faculties we once possessed. I guarantee that twenty years ago that woman could have told me to go down the street two lights and turn left.

The implication is not that GPS is a bad thing that shouldn't be used. Rather, we should be critical in our use of it. I prefer to use it more like a compass, giving me an idea of a route before I set out on a trip and then going back to it if I stray or become uncertain. In the meantime I do my best to follow along with the route, to know where I am and where I am going. Additionally, if I am giving directions, along with just giving an address to be plugged into a computer, to those that will hear it I give an overview of the way.

On a recent trip to San Francisco I was quite gratified to know enough of my way around to be guiding other visitors and driving them around town.  I felt like I had more ownership of the place I was visiting and that I understood more what makes it tick. And on a recent trip to Washington D.C. after giving an address to a friend I was glad I called him back and told him the simple directions. As a result I had a stake in his journey and our shared experience started as soon as he left. I felt like we had acheived something special in this day and age.

In both locations I used my phone as a GPS quite frequently. But I feel I was much more its master than it mine. Let us likewise wield all of our tools.

1 comment:

Ben said...

I agree. I've gone back to using maps rather than gps in most instances. They help me to build a mental map, rather than replace it. That lets me be more flexible and adaptable in route selection, without having to fight the technology in the process.