Monday, September 01, 2008

The Map is Not The Territory

Last fall, my brother came to visit and brought his GPS. We installed it in my truck and I used it the whole weekend. I was fascinated by the geographical information and its access. In fact, I could hardly keep my eyes off the screen as I drove.

We used it one night while coming back from the northwest valley. Dave wanted to get off the highway to stop and eat, and when we had finished, the GPS gave us a route home. But the route wasn't a return to the highway. It suggested a trip through the heart of some really tough neighborhoods in Phoenix late on a weekend night. I told him that I wasn't going to drive that way, that I was going to return to the highway even if it was longer. He argued with me. He wanted to see the guts of Phoenix and thought I was being ridiculous for not wanting to drive through any street at any hour of the day.

I realized as he spoke that I was reacting to a conditioned fear, something I had been taught to fear rather than something involving my personal experience. I also realized that I was safe anywhere I traveled as long as I felt safe. I insisted on driving the highway, but it gave me some food for thought.

After I processed this revelation, I had another revelation about the nature of using a GPS. I started to wonder how many people blindly follow the instructions on the screen instead of thinking for themselves. I wondered how many people were driving the exact same routes, whether they were good routes or not, because they were being told to drive them. I suddenly saw the GPS as another tool for setting the assemblage point for a large number of people in terms of travel routes.

In the months that followed, I did purchase my own GPS that I use nearly every time I drive my truck. But I almost always take my own route after seeing the suggested route from the unit. Eventually, I had to turn the volume down because of the number of times the unit announces it is "recalculating" because I have taken a preferred street or made a detour for another reason. Even when I take my own route, the unit continues to provide me with an updated arrival time, a feature I find most useful when driving to appointments. I also appreciate that the unit remembers exact locations, where I tend to generalize locations near an intersection, but then forget which direction to turn. Overall, it has helped my driving and saved me time I previously spent turning around or backtracking.

Last night, I was out after dark vising new friends in a part of town with significant road construction. I got seriously lost because I followed the GPS directions. In fact, at one point, I was driving into the black, driving on streets that did not exist in the GPS database. Throughout this trip, even through the frustration, I observed myself using the GPS and felt a renewed zeal for the fact that the map is not the territory.

I know that if I am riding in the car with someone, I don't pay as much attention to the travel route as when I am driving. Even if I'm engaged in a serious conversation, as the driver I remember the travel route. There are times when I'm using the GPS that I feel like I'm a passenger, that I'm not paying attention to the travel route, only the instructions provided to me. I am not as engaged in the activity of driving, and I'm losing the experience of finding my way on a new route. It's a form of shutting down and handing control over to the little box attached to the windshield.

I know there are a class of driving zombies on the road now, people who are following a voice in the box telling them the route to take and when to turn. People who are willingly submitting to the perception of the geographic data and the travel algorithms rather than explore the territory. People who prefer the map to the territory, or even worse, people who don't realize that they have not yet engaged the territory.

1 comment:

Self Ignorance said...

Are you making references to Jorge Luis Borges?