Saturday, February 14, 2009

Where Am I?

I used a GPS system for the first time last week. That may seem like a so-what comment, but those that know me will react with surprise. For most of my friends and those closest to me, I’m the only person they know who orienteers. The sport of orienteering, for those who aren’t familiar, is one of navigation that’s founded in the ability to read a map. Therein lays the surprise. Well that coupled with my suspicious perspective of technology. But the GPS came with the new cell phone, and, hey, it’s a free trial.

It’s got its pros and cons. On the bright side, if you’re hopelessly lost, GPS can pinpoint exactly where you are, and if you know where you are, you can figure out how to get where you’re going. The basic tenet of orienteering is to always know exactly where you are on the map. Although I sometimes struggle to find an orienteering control, I rarely “loose contact with the map” meaning I can always point to exactly where I am. So that GPS pinpoint can be a God-send, but at the same time, I find it a bit frightening. 1984, anyone?

Another benefit is that it’s small… no unwieldy road map to unfold, and then re-fold if you can. However, I find that to be a simultaneous detriment. I get the bigger picture with the road map, and what’s more, I can study it before I depart and keep the full map image in my head. Admittedly, my mental map (either road or orienteering type) fails me at times, and I think, “This is not how I pictured this….” That’s usually followed by a navigational error. So GPS could be the rescue.

And GPS talks to you, so you don’t need to take your eyes off the road. At the same time, there are several features on the screen that are helpful: mileage to next turn, total time left to reach the destination, the 3D view showing the road and the bends and turns that are approaching, and the identification of the next crossroads. All great stuff, but on a two-inch square screen, it takes more than a second to see it, so I’d rank it equal to the old-fashioned map in the time needed with eyes off the road.

The talking is okay. I’ve got a friend who refers to hers as “Sally Big Mouth.” My GPS also features a woman’s voice. Maybe they all do, but with all that technology can do, why can’t I choose the gender of the voice? I’d prefer a male voice… nice broadcaster type. Maybe that’s sexist, but it’s my preference, and I know I’m partial and biased.

So while I was driving, GPS spoke up and said “Severe traffic congestion ahead. Expect a four-hour delay.” Could that be true? The time-left indicator had, in fact, added four hours to my time of arrival. I debated finding an alternate route presuming the interstate had been closed with no opportunity to exit. Enter my suspicion of technology, so I kept to the known route. At no point did I encounter a delay, and noticed the arrival ETA stripping the hours and minutes off my time. GPS did not speak up at any point to correct itself. I figured it should, ala Gilda Radner of the old SNL skit, say: “Never mind.”

I used it again for the trip home. I live on an “avenue”; however, GPS refers to it as a “street”. About two miles from my home is a road of the same name designated as “lane.” I entered my address as “avenue”. As I approached the last crossroads before my street, GPS told me to turn the opposite way, presumably to take me to the “lane” location. When I pulled into my own driveway, GPS suggested I “make the next legal U-turn.” It was still making that suggestion as I walked into my kitchen.

Suspicion of technology continues.

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