How GPS Makes Clueless Drivers

We were driving somewhere in central New York State, along a two-lane blacktop that wound a spectacular course through farm-dotted valleys, past placid lakes and along forested hillsides.  My brother’s attention, though, was on the unwavering purple line on the dashboard-mounted GPS unit. At last we reached the interstate on-ramp – and he drove right past it. “Turn left in 50 feet,” the GPS said. My brother obeyed, hanging a left onto the access road. According to the machine we were smack on the highway, yet here we were, stuck behind a tractor pulling a load of hay. “Time to destination, 30 minutes,” the GPS announced.

As we idled along behind the cloud-belching agriculture machinery, I had a feeling of déjà vu. Not for this exact moment of farm-machinery-induced frustration, but for that hot moment of clarity when you realize that you’ve been suckered by the self-assurance of modern technology.

It’s something I find happening more and more often. In the 25 years I’ve been a travel writer, the information revolution has changed everything. Once, we visited travel agents, bought paper maps, consulted destination guides. Now, all of those needs can be taken care of by a few flicks of a finger across a phone’s touch screen. Because information is so cheap, we don’t need to pay much attention to it. We can browse around the world the way we browse around the web.

Apps and gadgets of every kind allow us to summon instant expertise that otherwise would have required years of study. But they also remove the need to learn, to engage, and to be curious. We can ignore context. And so even when we know exactly where we’re located, we have no idea where we are.

Pilots have a word for the state of presence in the world around you; they call it situational awareness. “Keep your eyes out of the cockpit,” my flight instructor always used to tell me. Meaning: look at the world around you. Don’t get fixated on what your instruments are telling you. Understand the context of what you’re seeing. Situational awareness means understanding where things are in relation to one another.  It means knowing what’s going on, and what you can do when your plans start to unravel.

Electronic gadgets, in contrast, urge us to forget all that tiring mental work and just follow the purple line. They’re the mental equivalent of the electric scooters that obese people ride around at amusement parks to save themselves the effort of walking. Eventually, you give up “needing to” at the expense of “being able to.”

Take the case of the Swedish couple who were headed to the Italian island of Capri but mistakenly typed “Carpi” into their GPS. When they got to their destination they were disappointed to find that it bore little resemblance to the sophisticated hideaway they’d heard about. In fact, the place wasn’t even surrounded by water, making it a poor example of an island by anyone’s books. The problem, they eventually realized, was that they had navigated their way to a landlocked village some 400 miles from their intended destination.

Over-reliance on satellite navigation has lead, unfortunately, to grimmer outcomes, including a spate of fatal incidents. Earlier this year a Canadian couple returning home from a road trip to Nevada followed their GPS directions into a remote canyon and got stuck. When hunters stumbled upon their van seven weeks later, the wife was on the verge of starvation. The husband, who had left in search of help, was eventually declared missing and presumed dead.

In travel, as in so many other areas of life, information technology is a two-edged sword. It both empowers and cripples. It convinces us that we don’t need to worry about background, about context, about details. It seduces us into overlooking the difference between knowing and understanding, between information and knowledge.

Even when functioning correctly, GPS and other gadgets deaden the richness of travel. Single-mindedly following your electronic instructions, you can safely reach your destination without being aware of the landscape or engaging with the people who inhabit it. You’ll never get lost, sure, but then again you’ll never experience the serendipities that getting lost can provide. You’ll never stumble upon the out-of-the way seaside village, the unsung restaurant, the sudden unexpected vista at the end of a country road.

As my brother and I drove along the country road, we were soon rescued by an old-fashioned piece of technology: a road sign. It led us back onto the highway, and soon we were speeding along on our way. At least, it seemed to me as the landscape slipped past, we knew where we’d end up. Where we were going, well — that was another matter entirely.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the September, 2011 issue of Red Bulletin magazine.