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Real-Time GPS and the Dilemma of the Modern Prometheus

Photo credit: Xurble via photopin cc

Photo credit: Xurble via photopin cc

Our annual family vacation this summer included driving several thousand kilometers through the northeastern United States, as far south as Virginia and Washington, DC. We’ve made similar trips in the past — well, at least as far as Boston anyway — but this time things were different. This time we were making the trip with an onboard global positioning system, or GPS.

Given how ubiquitous marketing and advertising have become in our modern culture, I think most of us are pretty jaded when it comes to the product claims that bombard us on a daily basis.

“Pay down your mortgage 14 years faster with no financial penalty!”

“Lose 20 pounds in 28-days — it’s simple!”

“Rekindle the romance with this little blue pill!”

If it seems too good to be true, we know from experience, it usually is. Your whites never seem to get quite as bright as the detergent companies insist they will in the advertisement, and the three-way dicer never chops quite as fast or effectively as they demonstrate in the infomercial. You know what I’m talking about. And the more advertisers insist there are “no strings attached” and / or “no hidden fees,” the more certain we can be that such encumbrances, nevertheless, are lurking in the “asterisk underbrush.”

Such was my state of mind when I decided to take the plunge and finally purchase a GPS to help guide us through this year’s summer road trip. My reasons for such a purchase were manifold. First and foremost, however, was the fact that I value my marriage far too much to ever again approach the Hartford, Connecticut, highway interchanges with no other resources than my own blundering insouciance and my wife’s rage / fear as she attempts to interpret navigational coordinates for me from a crumpled, sweat-stained MapQuest print-out.

“Exit left!” she screams.

“What do you mean exit left?” I scream back incredulously. “We’re on a throughway, you can’t exit left on a throughway!”

“It says exit left!” she insists.

“Well, I can’t exit left — it’s three lanes over! What if we exit right? Where would that put us?”


Then we both scream in unison as we hurl leftward to what can only be our impending death through three lanes of 120km/hour traffic in order to access the requisite ramp.

We make it, — I’m still not sure how — but though we have re-gained our lives in this particular instance, I know very clearly that I have lost a navigator.

The other main reason I felt it would beneficial to purchase a GPS for this particular trip was that we were going to be doing a lot of city driving once we arrived at out our various destinations. Even given the recurrent horrors of the “Hartford Incident,” highway navigation with a map is reasonably straightforward. Driving through downtown Washington with just a map though? Not so much.

Garmin NUVI-40

Garmin NUVI-40

So, my first bit of pre-purchase research began with asking friends if they owned a GPS and, if so, which one did they have. Most folks seemed to have a Garmin, and those who did swore by them. I soon decided that the entry-level Garmin NUVI-40 would suit us just fine, partially because I didn’t feel we needed a lot of bells and whistles (except for Hartford, after all, we had been fairly successful with our “old school” wayfinding techniques up to this point), but mostly because I’m a cheap bastard. I missed the big Father’s Day sale on the 40s at Walmart by about a week, but still managed to find a reasonable sale price at Future Shop after looking around for a little while.

I kept interrogating the salespeople and double-checking the “small print” before I bought the unit though because I couldn’t believe that: (a) downloadable map updates really were free for the life of the GPS (they are), and (b) that there wouldn’t be some sort of satellite fee that I would be charged once I started using it (there isn’t).

Then I then tried out the NUVI-40 for several weeks in my own neck of the woods so I would be familiar with any nuances I might need to get used to before I headed south of the border and really started to put it though its paces. I certainly don’t live in a very densely-populated, highway-intensive part of the world, but the unit performed without a hiccup given the limited number of challenges I was able to throw at it, and, try as I might, it would not allow me to ever get “lost.”

It was with burgeoning optimism then, that we hit the I-95 South at the start of our vacation and, during the two weeks we were on the road, the Garmin never once lead us astray. As I noted above, it’s very seldom that a product — technological or otherwise — ever lives up to the inflated expectations we often impose on it. I certainly anticipated using a GPS would provide some improvement over using route maps and MapQuest print-outs, for example, but I truly never imagined the thing would perform as flawlessly as it did. Not only did it guide us — calmly —  to wherever we wanted to go, it also had a list of accommodations, attractions, restaurants, etc., on hand for us once we got there. And, invariably, it absolutely refused to let us get lost no matter how many off-ramps I managed to miss or how many times I thought I knew where we were and decided to take a short-cut. 3,000+ kilometers on the odometer and not only was my marriage still intact, but my wife and son were able to spend their time in the car relaxing and recuperating instead of trying to keep their eyes peeled for the next off-ramp. Hats off to you Garmin, and to your modest little NUVI-40 unit which we now simply refer to — affectionately — as “Garmie.”

From a technical perspective, then, it was pretty much all sunshine and lollipops. But though technology giveth, I would argue, technology also taketh away. For there I was, I soon discovered, a newly-fallen vehicular Adam on the highways and by-ways of the eastern United States, — “[my] eyes [were] opened, and [I was] like God” (Genesis 3:5)— and the Garmin had been my undoing, my forbidden fruit. In fact, my new-found, satellite-enabled omniscience was literally God-like. I was now tracking my progress from the heavens, from which vantage point there was no possible way I could ever take a wrong turn or lose myself.

But what’s in it for me if my orderly arrival at every possible destination is, ultimately, pre-ordained? I gain nothing but the arrival itself, which strikes me as rather a hollow victory. Because where there is no risk (i.e. of getting profoundly, epicly lost and completely buggering up one’s day), there can be no corresponding sense of reward or accomplishment. No sense that you’ve made the correct choices and done the right things of your own accord. What fun is lighting out for the territories on a great adventure if you already know you won’t have a problem getting there, that you’ll never need to use your own wits to get yourself out of a jamb? That you’re no longer an agent of free-will? That technology has given you ease, but deprived you of the true richness of life’s experience in the process?

Is the cure in this case — as it is with so much of our ongoing technological innovation — worse than the disease? Is the logical culmination of such technology simply that we’ll all end up as the recliner-ridden human blobs from Pixar’s WALL-E movie? 

As usual, I don’t know the answer, but I welcome your input.



  1. bronxboy55 says:

    Maybe you could use Garmie when your wife and son are in the car — because it’s important to keep the family intact and on speaking terms — but explore your adventurous side when you’re out driving by yourself.

    By the way, I love that you quoted Genesis.

  2. Loved this post! My brother keeps telling me to use the GPS feature on my phone but I keep telling him “I can get there”! Well….I can but it always seems to be the long way because I keep missing the correct exits and try to rely on the signs which really don’t give you enough time to cross three lanes of traffic during rush hour to get to the proper exit.

  3. Dear Garmie,

    Please navigate me through the bewildering world of espresso machines and which one is the best one to buy.

    Lost in coffee

    On a different note-becoming like God with a Garmie would take away the priceless moment of “Exit Left!” Every child should experience the joy of mom and dad shouting at each other over directions from a hopelessly crumpled map, or in your case, direction sheet. Of course, there is that peace of mind knowing you do not have to rely on a navigator, and also knowing your wife will give you hugs and kisses for not bothering her while she reads.

    But what will our children do? Gone are the days of watching mom and dad go at it over which way they should go. Like the rotary phone, our children will think a navigator is a type of car. No more stories of mom crumpling up the map and tossing it out the window in disgust; no more maps with the one page missing you absolutely need; no more sudden lane changes to make it on the off-ramp. Garmie has brought peace to driving. I guess I’ll get a bike and ride without a helmet.

  4. LOL I’m not qualified to offer input. I finally agreed to let hubby get me the GPS and I STILL get helplessly lost — because I don’t understand its instructions! Don’t ask! The visual and the auditory directions confuse me. And I mentioned in a recent post how I grew up hearing I was smart LOL. I’m just a human road hazard. Thoughtful post!

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