Monday, July 12, 2010

GPS, Schmee-PS

I recently had the privilege of spending a few days in Indiana. During the time I was there, I had the chance to sit on a front porch swing, see many cornfields, and contemplate the use of GPS.

The first two are pretty straightforward, so I will just skip to what, for me, was the most fascinating part of the visit. It was not the ubiquitous use of GPS, but how it was no longer even noted by the users. Five years ago, when my first friend or two had a GPS navigator in their cars, it was pretty much the center of attention of the ride because it was so novel. It was also annoying, and it generally caused more problems than it "solved." Two or three years ago, when a few more people had a GPS telling them where to turn and such, especially when they went Out of Town (aka "No! Don't make me look at that big scary map! Waaaaaaah!! Mommy!"), it was officially becoming a pervasive part of the landscape. People began to joke together about the perceived personality of the guiding voice and the symbolism in "recalculating."

But this month, on my visit to Indianapolis, there was no comment whatsoever upon the use of GPS, as opposed to not using it, other than in my head. It was accepted as a given, you see, by multiple people in multiple situations. And I am wondering when we crossed that line.

I dislike that line. I have no use for a GPS, and I'll tell you why: because I know how to read a map/figure out where I'm going/ask for directions/read context clues/use problem-solving skills. There are several things I can think of off the top of my head that I dislike about GPS dependence, but I'll just concentrate on that main one here. When I see someone so quick to pop an address into his/her GPS, I know something about that person. It's not necessarily that s/he doesn't know how to get somewhere, but that s/he doesn't know how to figure out how to get somewhere. That disturbs me.

It's not only the people we happened to see in Indiana, of course. I commented on some random blog just the other week because I was astonished at how amused the blogger was by herself and her utter inability to drive anywhere without GPS - even in her own metropolitan area! And when we were in Istanbul, one of my Habitat trip mates was all about using her handheld GPS to find her way to Istanbul landmarks, which were generally right in front of her once she looked up from the device.

Also, what I want to know is: are the people in the GPS cult even half as aware as the rest of us that it's not foolproof? That in the same way being able (usually!) to check your bank balance online is no substitute for knowing how much is in your checking account, being able to (usually!) get on-the-spot directions from a "magical" technological voice is no substitute for knowing where you are.

Important note: It is possible that my GPS-lovin' friends who read this blog will think this is an "insult" that is "directed" at them. I have already stated that this is a commentary on the widespread use of GPS, therefore not directed at anybody in particular. Also, oh well -- we are in fact adults now, and there are some things you should be capable of when you are over 25. Reading a map is one of them.


Megan said...

Totally not offended by my contribution to your observations. Blogging is about observation and critique, and I'm ok with being on the other side of that.

I don't look at the GPS as some downfall in modern travel, it's just a different way to approach it, depending on whether you have the time to absorb the area and problem-solve your way to your destination, or if you have a destination and want to merely reach point B. Foolproof, no, but convenient and for me, better than the alternatives.

Prior to GPS, I had my big map in my car and I looked at maps online beforehand and wrote down instructions to myself. But if I got off track from those instructions, I was completely lost. If I make a couple of turns, I can no longer even vaguely gesture to where I started. I rely on the GPS heavily because I find it frustrating to be lost all the time, rather than seeing it as some skill that I could possibly develop. I went for years and years without it, and I never made it anywhere without getting lost first. Maybe its convenience has reduced my overall ability and/or willingness to find my way around like you do, but I was miserable without it and perpetually felt stupid and lost, and I've seen it as nothing but a benefit over the past couple years.

linda said...

I actually agree with you about it being "a different way to approach" point A to point B. And that it can be convenient. I think we are good having different viewpoints on this particular issue. And I'm serious when I say this isn't directed at anyone - I am truly surrounded by GPS users. I am the odd one out.

I also happen to adore maps. Like, in a nerdy way. I like maps. Also, globes. I was left in a kind of breathless ecstasy at Mt. Vernon in the room where they had George Washington's actual old globe from his 1700s office! I wonder if my brain perceives it as GPS is to map as Cliff Notes is to reading the book ... ? Hmmmm.

(Do you like how I managed to tie in yet another presidential home there in my comment? I am clearly a presidential history dork. Love it.)

Kim Diaz said...

Hail to the map-lovers! Thomas Guides Forever! Rand-McNally is my Right Hand Man! Here's to driving along any Interstate, pulling into the first gas station across a county line, and loading up on local maps!
Looking it up, writing it down, and sticking a post-it on my dashboard!
Maps tell you what's there - NOT ONLY WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR!
I would've, for example, driven right past the Sonora Caverns in Texas off the I-10 if I hadn't NOTICED THEM ON A MAP!
It reminds me of, for example, people who own watches (does anyone anymore?) with a numerical, digital display, versus those who own watches with a circular clockface. Those only looking at the numbers tend to only think of time as what is right this second; those with a clockface think of their entire day, what has happened and what has yet to happen. Anyway - ¡vivan los mapas!