Why I'm giving up on GPS devices.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
June 20 2008 3:07 PM


Why I'm giving up on GPS devices.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Don't rent a car at the airport, a friend had advised. Take a cab. You'll be jet-lagged from the long flight and too disoriented to drive the streets of Sydney, Australia. It was sound advice, but it failed to take into account my motoring talent and navigational mastery.

Telling me I can't fly into a city and rent a car is like telling me that I can't be trusted with the lawn mower. Finding my way around a strange place is one of the few things I'm good at.


That's not false modesty. In the general category of Guy Skills, I'm decidedly mediocre. It is not merely that I don't fix the plumbing or rehang the door; I am befuddled by anything more complicated than duct tape. And even duct tape is a bit intimidating.

But I'm a good navigator. My brain is crammed with little magnets that tell me the direction of true north. By studying the landscape, finding the sun in the sky, examining the moss on trees, and judging the rabbit pellets and bear spoor by temperature and mouthfeel, I can reliably find the nearest Starbucks.

This is why I've turned against GPS devices after a brief fling with them while covering the presidential campaign. It's over between me and the computer lady whose voice emerges from the Garmin box on the dashboard. The navigational benefits were overshadowed by the marked erosion in my self-esteem.

It's possible that this breakup is somehow associated with that iconic phenomenon of male self-sufficiency—the refusal to stop and ask directions. Men often refuse to let anyone usurp their navigational authority. But I plead a different case: It's not that GPS renders me unmasculine; it just makes traveling less of an adventure.

With GPS there is no terra incognita. It's all been cognita-ed to the last square millimeter. GPS turns even the most exotic locale into Bethesda, Md.

Make no mistake, it's kind of nice to be able to punch in an address and sit back and let the machine sort out the details. The best Garmin feature is the one that lets you find the nearest hotel, the nearest Mexican food, the route back to the airport, etc. And I'm not going to bash the intelligence of the GPS device, even though it does have all the irritating personality traits of every talking computer ever invented, starting with being, in a crunch, a total blockhead. Computers so rarely get the gist of things. They're hyperliteral. They can't grasp, for example, the fact that we like to do contingent driving, open to serendipity—what is often called "cruising."

Computers can't cruise. Meandering is a foreign concept to them. The computer assumes that all behavior is in pursuit of an ultimate goal. Whenever a motorist changes his or her mind and veers off course, the GPS lady issues that snippy announcement: "Recalculating!"

But again, I can tolerate the computer; the bigger problem is that the GPS device robs the traveler of a human skill that has emerged from Deep Time. We are generally quite good at reading landscapes. We are members of a hunting and gathering species, and we've learned, over the millenniums, to find prey, forage, and shelter; to anticipate changes in weather; to interpret hostility or amicability among others of our kind; to sniff out sexual opportunities. Surely we can find our hotel downtown.

This ability to discern textures in the landscape and imagine what's around the next outcropping is effectively rendered obsolete by GPS.

I won't go along anymore. Better to be lost than zombified.

I walked out of the Sydney airport and jumped in my rental car under a sparkling antipodal sky. Jaw dropped: no steering wheel. Ah! But of course. In Australia, the passenger drives.

No worries. Done it before, years ago; can do it again.

But things quickly got dicey. It seemed that, no matter how far I drove, I was still adjacent to the airport. There's both a domestic and an international airport, and you weave among them for what seems like an hour before finally emerging, grateful that they've yet to build the interplanetary airport.



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