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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.


The Calm Before the Post: Stalking my Inner Luddite

Paul Mayne via photopin cc

Photo credit: Paul Mayne via photopin cc

Consider this a pre-post. A teaser of sorts. Or a trailer, as they refer to it in the movie biz — though why they continue to call something they show before the movie starts a “trailer” still eludes me.

There’s a bunch of subject-specific stuff zooming around in the old noggin at the moment, but I’m not quite willing to generate a final post on it yet. It’s all still whirling — airborne, malleable, coalescing. I gotta wait for it to stop shifting and for the dust to settle on it for a bit yet.

What’s got me all in a lather? Kids and technology. Or, more specifically, I suppose, kids and their dependence on addiction to technology.

A couple of weeks ago I caught the tail end of a documentary on PBS that argued that being brought up with a strong connection to nature generally helps kids fare better later in their lives. The underlying theory, of course, is that having a reasonably sustained, direct exposure to the natural world — finding your way amongst the flora and fauna, appreciating the vicissitudes of the weather, learning how many tree trunks you need to nail that 2”x4” to before you can use it to support the floor of your tree-house, etc. — teaches you transferable, real-world, problem-solving-type skills that will be hugely valuable in your future life as an adult.

At this point, not pausing to analyze the premise too critically, I would have to say I’m in general agreement.

I stumbled upon the program when it was nearly over; when the teens in the show — urban and suburban kids who had been brought out to the “wilderness” to experience it first-hand for several weeks for probably the first time in their lives — were playing at ambushing each other with home-made bows and arrows, swimming in the the nearby streams and sitting companionably around the camp fire. Idyllic sylvan frolicking all around. Many of them were a little homesick, and a few of them generally thought the whole exercise was “stupid” and sorely missed the conveniences of their “real” lives, but these certainly aren’t foreign emotions to any kid who has ever left home for summer camp.

It was when the kids returned to the bosom of their families, however, that things started to go south for me. Upon returning home, one of the remaining challenges the filmmakers wanted the group to undertake was a “technology fast,” to see how long they could fare without jumping right back on the “virtual” bandwagon where they had left off. It was voluntary, so some agreed to go ahead with it and some didn’t. Those who declined to participate in the fast walked in the door of their homes and were soon once more stationary in front of one type of screen or another, once more cresting the horizons of their digital frontiers.

Of those who agreed to participate in the fast I’m not sure that anyone lasted more than a day (maybe two days, tops) without being overwhelmed by their addiction and having to return to their smart phones and computers in fairly short order. And it was one young girl’s “video diary,” after only a single day back in the “world,” that ultimately sent me reeling. This poor young thing, who, ironically, was one of the kids who actually seemed to have some fun out in the woods, was nearly trembling with withdrawal symptoms as she spoke into the camera about how she absolutely had to get back to her cell phone. That she just couldn’t hold out any longer. My heart nearly broke. This child — our children — have become literal technology junkies.

I remember experiencing a similar feeling of desperation about six months ago after stumbling upon a blog in which a mother was describing how upset she was at having to develop an arsenal of new strategies to talk with her young daughter about many of the things the daughter was seeing other girls post on Facebook relating to “cutting” themselves. I think the daughter was 10- or 11-years old. I can’t for the life of me remember what series of random clicks would have ever brought me to such a web page to begin with, but what I can remember thinking about at that point was what kind of parents would let their child have their own Facebook accounts at that age in the first place? Hello?

But here’s where it gets complicated. I’m a huge fan of technology — always have been. I love gadgets and gaming and blogging and essentially having the entire world available to me at my fingertips via the internet (though I hate texting and despise Facebook, but that’s probably fodder for a whole ‘nother blog). I couldn’t earn my daily bread without a computer and a cell phone (though millions of architects have in the past!) and, truth be told, I also frequently turn to technology to soothe my weary soul via streaming entertainment in some form or another.

But when it comes right down to it, my relationship with technology is probably very similar to my relationship with, say, booze. Like most folks, I enjoy a drink every now and then — maybe even several, given the right occasion and venue — but no one I know, by any stretch of the imagination, could ever call me an alcoholic. I’m an adult. I know when enough is enough. On the other hand, I think it’s damn near impossible these days to find a kid who’s not a “technoholic,” who even begins to comprehend what “enough” means.

Where I live the drinking age is 19-years old, and, for the most part, this limitation seems to do a reasonable job of preventing those who are still honing their emerging decision making skills from becoming mindless drunkards. Maybe we need something similar where technology is concerned. Maybe we need to establish an age of “digital” majority. All things being equal, maybe we’d be better off helping our kids learn to experience, appreciate and contend with real life before letting them escape down the rabbit hole of virtual life.

I dunno. Like I said at the start of this post, I got this issue stuck in my head and I’m simply trying to think / write my way through it. What I do know, however, is that pretty soon my son’s probably going to be the only teenager in junior high school without a cell phone and that any minute now my in box is probably going to start filling up with hate mail from every kid on the internet who thinks a digital age of majority is probably the worst idea since some sadistic old fart invented school in the first place.

Am I serious? I’m not sure yet. Is such an approach simply little more than a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater? Might I actually be a Luddite in techie’s clothing? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

Feel free to weigh in.