Saturday, August 14, 2010


A Boston Globe op-ed column today questions whether or not GPS units are always a Good Thing:

'Unlike digital devices, written instructions on old-fashioned paper don’t fail during solar flares or send you a paragraph-long error message while you’re driving at 60 mph. They don’t use obscure references even the crustiest local has never heard, like “Lord’s Corner,’’ when everyone knows the landmark is the Dunkin’ Donuts. They don’t have dead spots.

'Maybe digital positioning systems work OK in newer, grid-like spaces in the Midwest. But they collapse when confronted with the quirky byways of New England. We live on a street that passes from Boston to Newton with the same name, but the house numbers scramble when you cross the border. I can’t count the number of dinner guests or cab drivers who have called in frustration because they can’t find the address they have entered into their trusty GPS. Taking a few minutes to listen to verbal instructions would have saved them far more time in hapless circling.

'Indeed, taking a few minutes to read good directions frees the traveler to enjoy the ride — to notice what the writer saw: the creeping fog over the harbor, or the golden haze on the cornfield. After all, the time spent in the car is also part of the vacation. It’s a chance to discover and savor new things. And for that, it’s a lot better than getting lost in Somerville.'

Technology as a tool, rather than a way of life, is unobjectionable. And every new technology, for better or worse, changes one's view of life. At 60 yo, I understand that better than I did at 20; I miss, amongst other things, record album cover art, the feel of dialling a phone, and using a Sears socket wrench set to do just about anything a VW beetle needed done to it.

As for informed travelling, a street map isn't any better than a GPS unit, and requires minimal if any thought. And detailed guides such as the Lonely Planet's, Blue Guides, the local Chamber of Commerce's, or a storekeeper's or bartender's, remain available for those interested. And you can drive whilst using GPS, even at night.

Meanwhile, GPS can, and, I'd argue, should provoke a sense of wonder, every time you use it: it links to orbiting satellites in real time, and requires for its computations Einstein's theory of general relativity. Mindfulness can extend indefinitely in a vast universe. So can a lack of intellectual curiosity, a taking of things for granted rather than exploring, questioning.

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