Why I'm giving up on GPS devices.

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

Lost

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.

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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.

Within about a mile, or a kilometer, or hectare, or whatever they call it here, I was lost, or at least the world had failed to present itself to me in a manner that could be called transparent. Perhaps it was the sun: It hung in the northern part of the sky. Because down is up here, spring is autumn, south is north, and Orion with the belt and sword in the night sky is standing on his head.

Sydney quickly revealed itself as a place where all street names are provisional—you can be driving on Williams Street and discover that it has become Park Street on a whim.   Now, if I had GPS, I wouldn't have learned this about Sydney so quickly. Nor would I have had the nice interaction with the locals that I enjoyed when, at an intersection, I begged a cabbie for directions.

Fortunately it was an older cabbie who actually knew how to find such strange Sydney thoroughfares as the Eastern Distributor. The younger cabbies, I was later informed (during a rare trip in a taxi myself) by a veteran hack from Lebanon, use GPS—and never learn the city.

"No brain! They have GPS!" he said, smacking the dashboard to denote where hateful gadget gets mounted.

I had brain. Also a lot of fear. The novice driver in Australia must learn to overcome the sense of being seconds from death. Cars bear down on you from unlikely angles, the anxiousness of the moment heightened when you try to signal a turn and merely activate the wipers.

The newspapers are filled with stories of traffic accidents. A fatal accident is invariably referred to as a "horror crash." My goal was to ensure that if I got in an accident, it would be an unhappy crash but not a horror crash or a gut-wrenching revulsion crash.

I rented cars in four cities: Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, and Alice Springs. Australia is a lovely place: the people are the friendliest on the planet, the accents are delightful. The kangaroos are numerous and, I found, delicious—pair with mashed potatoes, beetroot, and a big cabernet.

I rarely mourned the lack of GPS because I spent a lot of time in the countryside, which is essentially uninhabited and where one is pleased to be on any road whatsoever. There are only about four or five roads on the entire continent, including the Stuart Highway and the Sturt Highway. There are dirt roads—"tracks," they call them, accurately—that go for 1,000 miles across the bush. When you pull out of the Alice Springs airport, a road sign says, "Alice Springs 10" and "Darwin 1502." Another sign says simply, "Adelaide," with an arrow, failing to note that the distance to Adelaide is about 4 percent of the circumference of the planet, by my calculation.

The danger here isn't that you'd get lost but rather that you'd venture too far out-bush, as they say, and then run out of gas. You'd know exactly where you were—and that you were doomed. Eventually the authorities would find your dingo-gnawed bones.

As far as the quality of my driving in Oz, I can report that when I was pulled over by police, I got off with a warning. In Margaret River, which is south of Perth, I overshot my hotel, got flustered, ritually hit the wipers instead of the blinker, and finally lurched into a housing complex, at which point the flashing lights appeared in the rearview mirror.

"You committed three violations," the officer told me. "You drove on the wrong side of the road, you didn't use your turn signal, and you weren't wearing a seat belt."

"I was wearing a seat belt!" I protested. I felt a bit chuffed from having been accused, in effect, of driving recklessly, when I was merely driving badly.

Now, with GPS, I probably wouldn't have overshot the hotel—the GPS lady would have told me exactly when to turn and in what direction. But it turned out I didn't really need it, because everything worked out fine—the cop let me go. He probably felt sorry for me because I didn't have any GPS to guide me. You never know.

As I write, I have just a few more days in-country before heading home, and it's possible that I've racked up dozens of speeding tickets from the hidden cameras and am, as we speak, wanted by authorities. I may be on the lam, in other words. An outlaw. But I have seen the country my way without any GPS lady to guide me. Today I'll head out into the bush west of Alice Springs and have a bit of a walkabout. I'll drive back before it gets dark and the 'roos get thick around the roadways. And I'll be careful, with hands on the wheel at 10 and 2.

Or maybe here it's 2 and 10.

Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Washington Post and the author of the new book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher.

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