The Downside of GPS

From Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us:

A GPS device, by allowing us to get from point A to point B with the least possible effort and nuisance, can make our lives easier, perhaps imbuing us, as David Brooks suggests, with a numb sort of bliss. But what it steals from us, when we turn to it too often, is the joy and satisfaction of apprehending the world around us—and of making that world a part of us. Tim Ingold, an anthropologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, draws a distinction between two very different modes of travel: wayfaring and transport. Wayfaring, he explains, is “our most fundamental way of being in the world.” Immersed in the landscape, attuned to its textures and features, the wayfarer enjoys “an experience of movement in which action and perception are intimately coupled.” Wayfaring becomes “an ongoing process of growth and development, or self-renewal.” Transport, on the other hand, is “essentially destination-oriented.” It’s not so much a process of discovery “along a way of life” as a mere “carrying across, from location to location, of people and goods in such a way as to leave their basic natures unaffected.” In transport, the traveler doesn’t actually move in any meaningful way. “Rather, he is moved, becoming a passenger in his own body.”

Wayfaring is messier and less efficient than transport, which is why it has become a target for automation. “If you have a mobile phone with Google Maps,” says Michael Jones, an executive in Google’s mapping division, “you can go anywhere on the planet and have confidence that we can give you directions to get to where you want to go safely and easily.” As a result, he declares, “No human ever has to feel lost again.” That certainly sounds appealing, as if some basic problem in our existence had been solved forever. And it fits the Silicon Valley obsession with using software to rid people’s lives of “friction.” But the more you think about it, the more you realize that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are. It is to live in a state of dependency, a ward of your phone and its apps.

Problems produce friction in our lives, but friction can act as a catalyst, pushing us to a fuller awareness and deeper understanding of our situation.

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