I read Jon Carroll today and think of the times I have been misguided by GPS and I think of the Bible and those who believe that absolutely every word in it is Gospel and true, even though there are obvious contradictions, and I wonder why we so often trust something manufactured outside of ourselves rather than our own common and not-so-common sense. I go back to the self-healing miracles that we are. Listen to the beat within and then look up and out and feel your feet on the ground as you stand, sit, walk, and lie down, the four dignities of humankind.
About a decade ago, when there were wolves in Wales and GPS systems were exotic new gadgets, I went on a road trip with two guys to the high desert of eastern Nevada. One of the passengers in the car owned a spanking-new GPS device and was fascinated by it.
As the bleak, broad grandeur of the countryside swept by, he kept staring at his device. "We should be approaching Pioche pretty soon," he said, as we passed a road sign that said "Pioche: 10 miles."
"I think we are," I said.
"What a great machine," he said.
Eastern Nevada is not a place that requires a lot of GPS input. There's a road. You can go one way, you can go the other way. By using such refined techniques as "keep the sun on your left in the afternoon," you can pretty much get wherever it is you want to go. And where you want to go is generally Ely.
Still, he plotted our course like a master mariner. We were never in doubt as to precisely where we were, although we weren't in doubt anyway. I enjoyed occasionally putting the GPS on as small a scale as possible and then watching our little blip move up the road. Then I'd look up and, yup, our blip was moving. Astonishing.
One day, however, we went looking for a ghost town. (There's a long story about this adventure, and perhaps someday I will tell it, unless I already have.) Now GPS guy was in his element. He programmed in the coordinates. He found the road to the ghost town.
"Slow down, slow down, we're almost there," he said. "OK, take a left ... now!"
The driver did so. We bumped along over the sand, flattening sagebrush and creosote bushes. We hit a gully, slid sideways, gained traction and plowed on. "This isn't a road!" I said.
"It is a road," said the guy with the unit. "It's right here on the screen. Keep going straight."
"There's a big mountain straight ahead," I said.
"Well, let's stop before that," he said, finally looking up.
It turned out that, in a sense, the GPS device was correct. There was a ghost town straight ahead, and one could make out faint tracks of road that once had been. Probably the GPS company had programmed an old map into the device. But still, it was a lesson in the persistence of technological fantasy.
Cut from Nevada in the '90s to England in the aughts. The tiny village of Wedmore is having a little problem. According to Sarah Lyall in the New York Times, the GPS system has listed the road through Wedmore as a wonderful alternative route when the main highway is jammed.
Unfortunately, the one road through Wedmore is very narrow. There's no room for passing. There's no room for large trucks. There are several sharp corners that could defeat even the most experienced driver. Trucks are getting stuck there all the time. They knock down walls and signs, shear mirrors off cars, lose traction at the bottom of Wedmore's one and only hill.
Wedmore is not alone; there are hundreds of villages in England that have found themselves inundated by GPS-directed traffic. They have tried putting up signs, large signs, warning of narrow roads and sharp turns and the perfidy of GPS devices. But of course, people using the devices are not looking at the signs.
Some of the villages have simply asked to be removed from the GPS maps. The technology companies have refused to do that, saying that such a move would destroy the integrity of the maps. Perhaps certain warnings could be integrated into the GPS databases, but that would take time, and in the meantime - why don't the villagers set up a lemonade stand? Extra revenue!
It's actually an old problem in a shiny new wrapping. Computers are only ever as good as the information fed into them. Google says it's not evil, but it could easily be evil - it could, if it wanted to, relocate the nation of Burkina Faso to Southeast Asia and cause millions of schoolchildren to fail their geography finals.
A GPS device is not magic, no matter how magical it looks. (But the ones that talk to you in a sultry female voice - clearly witchcraft.) The people who programmed the GPS gave not enough thought to how it would be used, so they built in no safeguards. Now they are governed by a sacred rule they made up yesterday, and tiny Wedmore will just have to cowboy up until a fix can be devised.
"It's a road!"
"It's not a road!"
See this dot? Now see this dot over here? OK, we only have to go that far - maybe an inch at most. How hard can that be?
It's funny, isn't it? Very funny indeed!!