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GPS: Global Potential Stupidification


“It would be no exaggeration to say that I was entirely flabbergasted and aghast”

Guest Column By Sean Hyland

Who doesn’t like GPS? After all, what isn’t to like? No more getting lost, no more bulky maps to consult or unreliable directions to follow from gas station attendants. It’s all streamlined to a sleek, satellite guided box delivering your directions in a voice dripping with utter technological self-assuredness and infallibility (while it sends you down an unplowed seasonal road in January, but that’s another matter!) Perhaps not shockingly to anyone who knows me, I don’t like GPS nor do I use it. At first my indifference to GPS was based on disinterest. I didn’t feel I needed it and didn’t want it, so I didn’t use it. However, as time has gone on my disinterest has become an outright aversion. I wouldn’t own and use GPS if it was given to me. 

 It’s a universal feature of our modern society’s relationship with technology that we adopt and implement technological innovations first and discover the true consequences, good and bad, later. Naturally enough, while the benefits of a particular technology are shouted from the rooftops by advertisers, the potential downsides are often given short shrift. But in this area, like any other in life, there is no free lunch and the hidden costs will eventually appear.

 It turns out that the same principles fully apply in relation to GPS. The first time I had an inkling of this was a few years ago when I happened to be listening to an author being interviewed on the radio. One of the characters in the book was rather tech dependent and the interviewer asked the author if that partly mirrored the author’s own experience. The author nonchalantly responded by stating that of course this was the case and that we all know how it is now with our smartphones. Perhaps it’s a place that we’ve driven to dozens of times: school, the grocery store or work; the GPS goes out and we realize that we have no idea where we are or how to get to where we wanted to be. Meanwhile, the interviewer made gently affirmative sounds of agreement and understanding. 

 It would be no exaggeration to say that I was entirely flabbergasted and aghast. I just couldn’t believe that a statement like that could be made as an uncontroversial commonplace worthy of no particular comment or reaction. It was apparently entirely normal. I started paying attention myself, at that point, and real life has confirmed the author’s blase assessment. Now I see the absolute reliance on GPS all around me: people habitually rely on GPS to get to places they have been to routinely, people can’t explain or process directions as well and often can’t explain quite where they have been, often responding with a laugh, “I just turn when the GPS tells me to!”.

 Perhaps the reaction of most will be that it’s no big deal, GPS works almost all the time, and it’s just the nature of progress in action. I would respectfully disagree for a few reasons. The first of these is fundamental to how our brains work. When we constantly outsource a task, like directional orientation, to a piece of external technology then those skills will eventually atrophy from disuse. During non-GPS travel, I find that a comprehensive mental map is being assembled. Knowing that roads like I-390 run North to South, 1-86 or Route 5&20 run East to West, the relative position of various towns and secondary roads within this grid combined with the knowledge that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West allows me to find my way back to where I want to be from nearly anywhere.

 Beyond the freedom that comes from being able to navigate the world without the intermediate of technology, it also creates a more profound understanding and awareness of the world. Your brain is constantly activated and engaged when traveling without the aid of GPS as it actively catalogs and retrieves information based on landmarks and geographic awareness. Traveling without GPS is a much more mentally rigorous activity, while with GPS it becomes a mentally unengaged one. While listening to GPS instructions one becomes a passive receiver of direction rather than a cognizant navigator of the physical world. As GPS becomes ubiquitous, it seems like fewer and fewer people have the consciousness to navigate without it. This is especially true with younger people who have never had to drive without GPS and so have never formed those basic spatial awareness skills.

 This is a trend which is not just limited to GPS but encompasses the entire modern model of technological adoption. At the heart of it lies the question of what purpose technology serves. Is it useful to adopt technologies that supplant our innate capabilities, outsourcing our brain functions to internet capable god-machines so that we don’t find it necessary to fire our synapses to get from place to place? The human mind and body has incredible potential that we often leave largely untapped. Why do we as a society choose to ignore those capabilities and allow them to atrophy by the use of technological crutches rather than hone our natural abilities? GPS and smartphones are only the tip of the smart technology iceberg; smart-fridges, ovens, cars and the whole constellation of smart devices that promise greater freedom by taking over a variety of our basic mental and physical functions now exist. In marketing these, the question is never raised that perhaps there is a good side to having to physically move to turn on the lights or have the cognizance to remember when one is getting low on milk.

 With matters like this, it’s not so much about each individual concession of our minds and bodies to the machine, but what the accumulation means in total taken to its logical end result. In the case of GPS and smart technology in general, the end result is people who will be unable to perform the most basic day to day functions without their technological crutches. This may be less noticeable in adults who have already formed certain mental habits and pathways, but think of the result when children are brought up in such an environment from the earliest age. They will never have the opportunity to wire their brain functions in ways that past generations take for granted. As basic capabilities erode, yet more layers of technological band-aids will be deemed necessary to maintain the semblance of functionality. This is not a theoretical prospect. We currently see this happening in real time.

Once we grasp the true nature of the choices that face us in our unquestioning adoption of many technological solutions, the next question is a value judgement. Is it taking us as individuals or as a society in a good direction or a bad direction? It’s clear enough which way I think the value calculus lands. There are deeply disturbing aspects of becoming entirely dependent, in ever more underlying ways, for the execution of the most trivial tasks. The resulting helplessness if and when those systems are interrupted will be total. But on a yet deeper level is my feeling that with the incredible abilities that we as humans possess innately it constitutes a deep insult to our own humanity to create enfeebling technological crutches rather than develop our own hardwired abilities.

 The motto of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair continues to be the dominant narrative in our relationship to technology: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms”. The question which was never asked and continues to remain unasked is whether that causal relationship is correct. Perhaps technology should exist as something subservient to deeper human needs and not something we should conform to. In a real way, the choice before us is clear: do we choose, as individuals and a society, to continue down a path of ever increasing, machine mediated deferment to the lowest common denominator or can we break the cycle and bring technology to heel, conforming it to human abilities as a tool and not as a crutch?

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