Ralph Gardner Jr: Which Way Do We Go?

Aug 11, 2018

Liquid filled compass
Credit Nicolas Kaiser / Wikimedia Commons

Are driving apps a good thing? This is a philosophical question. Also a literal one. The question occurred to me several times last weekend as we drove from Columbia County to a wedding in central Connecticut.

I’m saying central Connecticut. Except now that I’m checking I see that our destination was actually in western Connecticut. I didn’t know because I didn’t consult a map. Which would have placed our journey in a larger geographical context.

I simply followed the voice prompts wherever it took me – which happened to be through back roads until we reached our destination about an hour and a half later.

Is it just me or does everybody have a moment, or ten, during the average long distance trip where they doubt the honesty and integrity, not to mention the sense of direction, of Google Maps, Waze, or your poison of choice?

Actually, I take that back. Since you can’t rail at an algorithm – actually you can and I do though it doesn’t do much good – you question the judgment of the person seated beside you, in my case my spouse, trying to ally your fears that you’re seriously off-course and won’t make the wedding until the ceremony is over, even though you’ve allotted yourself lots of time to get there.

This is not an idle scenario. Nor are one’s fears groundless. A friend visited this weekend and told us the story of her son’s graduation from Kenyon College in Ohio and her sister’s failure to materialize at the guesthouse where the family was staying.

The reason, it turns out, is that her driving app took her to another place with the same name a couple of hours further south. And once she arrived there she called and canceled her reservation at the correct place.

I know. There may be a few holes in the story. But the larger truth holds – when you put yourself at the mercy of technology you have only yourself to blame.

Don’t get me wrong. On balance GPS is a good thing. I can remember the days when road maps – the kind you could never manage to fold the same way twice – was the coin of the realm.

I just had a flashback of using one of those Michelin maps to find my way around Europe. If you were lucky they delivered you to the right town and then you were required to ask directions of compassionate locals, the language barrier a hurdle of some significance.

On the other hand, a few years back we drove a couple of hours from Rome to a house we’d rented in Le Marche – it’s the relatively undiscovered region to the east of Tuscany and Umbria – and our app, after taking us over and under mountains and through fields of sunflowers delivered us to the driveway next to ours.

Or maybe we just overshot it. The point is that it was an invaluable asset, especially if you’re of a disposition that’s loath to ask directions.

I understand this is a male thing and perhaps it is. Which may be why my wife, whose ego or something is less fragile than mine, has that honor.

Even though we don’t ask directions as much as we used to. And it’s not just because we’ve grown dependent on Google Maps. It’s that if you fear you’re lost but you turn the car in the opposite direction and appease the Google gods they’ll validate your decision by offering some sort of decisive direction.

The problem is the voice sounds decisive even when it’s seriously misguided (that’s part of the problem; you can’t detect uncertainty in your robot navigator, as you would in a person, and decide whether their judgment is superior or inferior to your own.)

Come to think of it, is there any word that sums of the uncertainty of our current predicament – political, climatological, spiritual – than the word “rerouting.”

Suddenly you find yourself in a sort of impotent no man’s land waiting for a bunch of computer code to make decisions about your life that they have no right doing and only because you were dumb enough to give them that control.

Back to that wedding we attended. It was a lovely affair. The bride was beautiful, the groom handsome, the weather unimproveable after a couple of days of biblical rain, the toasts funny and heartfelt without being sentimental, and the food excellent.

We decided to spend the night at a hotel some fourteen minutes from the wedding venue. Unfortunately, we apparently missed a turn and in the time it took for Google Maps to compensate for our mistake or it’s own we could have been halfway home.

That’s the other thing I don’t get about driving apps: why do they sometimes clam up or go completely silent? Is it angry at us? Trying to teach us to become self-reliant? Or is it going to the bathroom or raiding the fridge?

On the way home the next morning I went to the front desk and asked them to print out directions since I’d neglected to bring my phone recharger and ran out of juice.

Here was the first direction, which would have been the same even if my phone was functioning: “Head north towards Heritage Road.” Sounds simple, right? Except how am I supposed to know which way north is in a place I’ve never been before? And how do you know whether your instincts are correct except by trial and error or by returning to the concierge desk and asking them. But they probably won’t be that helpful because they’re from Ukraine and this is just their summer job.

We did eventually find out way home, on the Taconic. There’s something to be said for that sense of well-being one experiences traveling a familiar road and not having to rely on any app at all.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.