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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?”

“IDUNNOEXITLEFT!!!”

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.

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The Death of Promise; or, I Was a Young Turk Once Too

London Calling. Summer 1985.

London Calling. Summer 1985.

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood,
To say as I said then!

Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare

The somewhat weary-looking young man posing in front of “Buck House” is, of course, yours truly. Sorry for the fuzzy image, but this was the pre-digital age, at least where consumer electronics were concerned. Nearly 30 years ago. Not sure how that’s possible, but, well, there you have it.

I stumbled upon this photo the other day when I was cleaning up from a small leak in my basement, because, hey, that’s how these things work: Freshman college kids run off to exotic locales to work(?) for the summer while, unimaginable years later, their slightly paunchier middle-aged doppelgängers mop up furnace rooms and generally putter around their homes trying to keep them in a fit enough state of repair to support human habitation.

Sorry, did that sound bitter? Every day above ground is a good day, I’ll admit, but, my, oh my, how our perspectives change over time.

This particular blog has been rattling around in my head since last summer — OK, probably well before that — when, on a fine July morning at the start of our family vacation, I found myself in a trendy coffee shop in downtown Ottawa, surrounded by a cadre of lithe, well-dressed / -coiffed / -shod teenagers. As I drank my small $3 cappuccino, however, observed their frenzied fingers assaulting innumerable BlackBerries and MacBooks, and caught a snippet of a few of the conversations emerging out of the general din, I soon realized these weren’t teenagers at all — these were the Young Turks of the sprawling federal government bureaucracy at the heart of the nation’s capital. Fresh faced, tireless, indestructible.

I suppose I had been a “playa” once too, a “contenda”. Hadn’t we all? Too naive to know our own limitations. What blissful ignorance — at least in peacetime. (In wartime, of course, that naiveté is frequently a death sentence, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog). Quitting jobs with nary a second thought, ‘cause, hey, I’m wasn’t about to do that for another 40 years. Seeking the unique, the novel, at every turn, since I certainly wasn’t going to get trapped in a rut for the rest of my life. I had it figured out. I had it goin’ on!

Not that I want to get all nostalgic here. I’m not so old that I can’t still remember the agonies of those days as well. Residual teen-age acne and far fewer “friends with benefits” than I felt were my due. No real security — other than the resilience of one’s youth — if you made truly poor choices; very little respect for whatever it was you were doing — because you hadn’t earned any yet; and the nearly visceral fear that you’d get it wrong when you were finally backed into the corner and compelled to make the “big” choices.

The difference between now and then, however, is that then, more often than not, you swallowed your fear and actually jumped. No guts, no glory. Maybe you drew on that childhood memory of the time you screwed up your courage and flung yourself off the really high-diving board — and lived. Or when you asked that super-popular girl to the dance. She declined, but your heart didn’t cease to beat and you haven’t been living as a hobo under a bridge ever since. You closed your eyes and took the plunge.

Now, of course, you own the rut, or, more accurately, you have a mortgage on it. But what other choice do you have? There’s simply too much at stake now, too much too lose. When I lived on campus during a couple of my university years, I often used to go for a Sunday night walk around the residential part of the city that flanked the campus to try to clear my head for the upcoming week. Here, in the evening darkness, I would  stare longingly at the complacent single-family homes with their decorative shrubbery and well-tended lawns and think to myself, would I ever get there? Would I ever be rid of these days of constant psychic anxiety, of exams and terms papers, of loneliness and striving, always striving? Well, flash forward: here I am. Be careful what you wish for…

Somehow, though, my thesis isn’t hanging together here as neatly as I had anticipated. I know I’m being inconsistent. Leading with the premise that our unsullied youth represents the proverbial high-water mark in our lives, then quickly backing away that idea at the same time. Peel back the layers, I guess, and maybe we start to wonder whether there’ll ever be a time when we’re truly comfortable in our skins, when our reach no longer exceeds our grasp. The worst thing in the world is not getting what you want; the second worst thing, damnably, is getting it.

Like any other component of our fragile psyche, our identification with our youthful selves is, doubtless, a complex one. For most of us, there probably remains something “golden” about these years — whether real or garnished by nostalgia. More than anything I imagine this can be attributed to all the latent potential we retrospectively ascribe to the pulsating firmament of our youthful selves. We tell our children, and our parents probably told us, “Dream big. You can do whatever you want.” And maybe before we leave middle school — statistically at least — this is not exactly un-true. With each passing year, and every consummated choice, however, we are further constrained, our options further limited, our selves somehow reduced. As philosopher and Harvard professor Roberto Unger puts it in a podcast lecture I stumbled upon the other day:

We cannot be everything in the world. We must chose a path. And reject other paths. This rejection, indispensable to our self development, is also a mutilation. In choosing, as we must, we cast aside many aspects our humanity. If, however, we cast them aside completely, we become less than fully human. We must continue somehow to feel the movements of the limbs we cut off. To learn how to feel them is the first major work of the imagination.

Later on, as adults, we struggle in the world and against it. We settle into a way of living and of doing. A mummy begins to form around each of us, diminishing our reach and our vision by accommodating them to our circumstance. We begin to die many small deaths. Our aim should be to die but once.

“Beyond the Small Life: A Letter to Young People” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdb-GTjggTg)

Admittedly, I seem to have now passed over into that potentially distressing phase of life during which I can genuinely commiserate with such banal “man-o-pause” compulsions as trying to snag that classic red Corvette or the big chrome-plated Harley before it’s too late (though I hope I’ll never be old enough to understand why anybody thinks a “comb over” is a good idea). And I grapple with the challenge of trying to apprehend the age-related constraints of personal potential as a constant companion in my writing. With this in mind I’ll go so far as to give over the closing credits of this blog to my fiction-writing self. Here, our unnamed protagonist, in a work-in-progress novella provisionally entitled Still Life, is staring at himself in the mirror before his morning shave, wondering what exactly happened to his own Young Turk self:

Like Coleridge, awakened by a traveling salesman before his reveries in Xanadu were complete, it would dawn on him that the dream from which he had awoken and to which he would never again return was youth itself. But, by this point in his life, he knew the game was rigged. That it had always been so, and that it would continue to be so. By the time you figured out how to play, you had already lost and there was no possibility for a make-up match. Youth, as the old saying goes, is wasted on the young. And yet there could never be an effective method to offer it up to the old. The elders, in their wisdom, wouldn’t waste it — and, if not wasted, it could hardly be considered youth at all, could it? That was the catch. The ultimate cosmic “Fuck you!”