Ari Schulman is a senior editor at the tech journal The New Atlantis. He’s been been thinking about the philosophy of GPS devices quite a lot and he thinks that they’re not 100 percent beneficial.
“Say you want to go to the Grand Canyon,” he says. “There’s the whole trip that you take there and when you’re navigating on the way there. If you are doing it without the GPS, you would probably have taken time beforehand to sit down, look at your route, plan it out and say, ‘OK I’m going to be traveling on I-10, take a state road.’ And you internalize and check as you go along, maybe you get lost along the way, but you place yourself into the world as you’re driving, and direct this experience sort of on your own.
“When you’re using a GPS device, not necessarily, but the way that most people use them and the way they’ve been designed, there’s a sort of turn-by-turn system and it feeds you directions as you do this. Do you’ll sort of go along, and it’ll say ‘turn left here and go 100 miles, turn right here,’ and you don’t have really a sense of connection to the place before you. So there’s sort of a difference in the way you’re attuned to the world. When you have the directions internalized, you have to know inside you what’s going to be in front of you, and look for that out in the world. You have a sense of traveling this amount of distance and then going right. And when you’re using the GPS device, it tends to isolate you from the world, insulate you from what you’re seeing. So you’re just sort of taking directions and don’t really need to look at what’s in front of you in order to see that. The old cliche is it’s the journey, not the destination. This technology inverts that and makes it about the destination.”
So what’s the overall effect of that? Schulman says, “It’s supposed to promise us a better way of being and existing in world. And the way the devices are now at any rate seems to kind of disconnect us from that. To replace the experience they’re telling us to have, or the experience we’re getting through the phone for the experience we would have in the actual real world. And if that’s something we care about — and obviously we do because we’re creating these technologies supposedly to help us out — then we ought to think about way they place us in world and the way they cause us to interact with the world. If you look at it in broader social level, I would guess that this would play into a larger trend we’ve been seeing in this country for a very long time, which is the declining significance of place and locality. And that could have all sorts of social and political consequences. If we’re less tied to what’s around us, more mobile, less attuned to the people and the things that are immediately in the places that we live.”
Also in this program, New York hacker Matt Richardson is a genius. Why? He invented a device to mute the TV automatically whenever annoying celebrities start talking. Thank you, Matt.