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Machines Like Us

Overdependence on technology

Thursday, 11 March 2010

I like a lot of the conveniences that modern technology provides. At the same time, there is so much new stuff that is coming out that I feel reluctant to waste my time learning things that will prove to be transient.

By Mano Singham

I am also somewhat cheap and tend to wait until the dust has settled and only the truly useful is left standing before spending money on it. So an early adopter I am not. I tend to keep an eye on trends but not adopt anything new unless I think I really need it or it solves a problem that I have or it looks like something that will really improve my life.

Personal GPS navigation systems have so far not passed that threshold. Yes, I can see that it might be fun to have but so far I am not persuaded that it is a must-have.

Last Friday, someone knocked on my office door. He said that he was looking for a conference that the university was hosting. I knew that there was nothing going on in my building and asked him why he had come there. He said that this was the place that his GPS has sent him to. I asked him if he could give me the name of the building where it was to be held or the people organizing it so I might be able to help him more easily. He said no. He had simply plugged some information into his GPS device and followed its directions to the end, which happened to be my building.

It so happened that I was able, from the topic of the conference, to track down the exact location and send him on his way. But I marveled at his total dependence on technology.

He is not alone. Recently my cousin was driving to New York City from Toronto for a wedding that I also attended and depended totally on his GPS system to get him there. For some reason, the street address of the hotel was not the address that you are supposed to insert into the GPS to get accurate directions, but he overlooked that and as a result he got lost and spent several wasted hours wandering around NYC (at the end of a long drive from Toronto when everyone in the car was already tired and irritable) until he found the hotel. It had not occurred to him to carry a map with the location of the hotel on it or to use MapQuest or similar sources to gets directions as backup.

While these two cases were benign, overdependence on GPS can be potentially deadly as one Oregon couple found when they blindly followed their GPS directions into a remote forest road and became stuck in the snow for three days before they were rescued.

I myself do not use GPS because I find that I am perfectly able to get to places with just street maps or with help from MapQuest. I also dislike the idea of voices breaking into my consciousness when I am driving and telling me what to do, when most of the time I don't need directions. Before I leave to go anywhere unfamiliar, I make sure that I have located my destination on a map and created a visual map in my head, and I take actual maps with me as a backup.

There s nothing wrong with using GPS. What surprises me is that some people are totally dependent on it and have no plan B, no backup, if the GPS goes awry.

POST SCRIPT: Wedding speeches

Over my lifetime I have attended many weddings and listened to quite a few speeches and I must say that That Mitchell and Webb Look captures their over-the-top praise nature well.

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)