One for the Road

Anthropomorphizing our GPS would be unreasonable if she weren’t really a person.


 

In.  Two.  Point.  Nine.  Kilometers.  Turn right.

Like a new reader, our GPS announces the next turn word by word, with no sense of the whole communication.  Choppy until she gets to a set phrase that allows her to string two whole words together without a perceptible pause—Turn right—she speaks with no look-ahead to what is coming next.  The result is clear enough to us, but evidently not to her.

Cute but not too bright, she never learns.  Living in a new development, we are off the GPS grid—our roads are not yet shown on the downloadable maps, even after four years.  Yet no matter how many times we make the same turn into our area, she always thinks we’ve gone off-road.

Do I imagine that slight tinge of panic in her voice?  Return to highlighted route.   

Do I detect a note of puzzlement a minute later as the position function confirms that, somehow—God knows how!—we are, nonetheless, home again?  Arriving at destination.

Attributing human characteristics to non-humans—storms, dogs, teenagers, that sort of thing—has been called anthropomorphism since the 1700s, but I’m thinking the activity itself has been around a wee bit longer.  Maybe, even, ever since there have been humans and storms, dogs and teenagers.  It’s such a natural way to see the world and everything in it.  As for electronic devices designed by humans for interaction with humans, they don’t just invite anthropomorphic reactions, they practically insist on them.  As it were.

And so it is that we have come to see our GPS as more than a useful tool: she has become a person (albeit disembodied) who shares our journey.  After all, her distinct attributes add up to a discernible person-ality.

Annoyingly precise, she knows the exact distance from our neighbourhood exit to the turn I must take to get to the ring road.  In.  Three.  Point.  Six.  Kilometres.  Turn left.

No sloppy directions phrased as half questions for her: Turn left in, oh, say, I dunno – maybe a little over three kilometres?  No siree!

Three.  Point.  Six.  Yes, ma’am.

Yet her precision is softened by something which presents either as endless patience or irrepressible stubbornness, depending on whether you’re truly lost or merely gone rogue.  If we deviate from her planned route, she works hard to get us back on the straight and narrow.  She never gives up, no siree!

Turn right.  Wanting to take another way home on the back roads, we blow past her announced turn.

Recalculating.  Is that the sound of gears grinding?

Drive.  One.  Hundred.  Metres.  Then.  Turn right.  We carry on.

Recalculating.  Is that steam rising from the unit?

Drive.  Two.  Hundred.  Metres.  Then.  Turn right.  We carry on, wincing a bit.

Recalculating.  And so it goes until our preferred route is the only option left to her.  Unfailingly polite, at no point does she do what I would, if asked for directions that were then cavalierly—Nay, repeatedly!—ignored.

Fine, do it your way.  Call me if you get there.  Mutter, mutter.

But if she doesn’t hold a grudge, neither does she acknowledge that our way might, perhaps, have been better in some small way, or even just OK.  No, as we get to our intended turn, she simply announces it, inflection free.

In.  Fifty.  Metres.  Turn right.

Her memory is phenomenal.  If asked to remember a route, she never forgets it.  No unsure waffling for her: Was it here that we turned last time?  I don’t remember that gas station.  No siree!  She’s full of confidence—and although she can’t see ahead to the next word, she knows the next few turns.

In.  Point.  Two.  Kilometres.  Turn left.  Then turn right.

In a real live girl—say, the one who used to do what passed for navigating in this vehicle—directional intensity would vary inversely with distance to the approaching turn.  So it is that we sometimes attribute tone to her communications.

In.  One.  Kilometre.  Turn right.  Just a heads-up.

In.  Point.  Five.  Kilometres.  Turn right.  A gentle reminder.

In.  One.  Hundred.  Metres.  Turn right.  A pointed reminder.

Turn right!  Highly insistent.

For.  The love of God.  TURN RIGHT!!!  A frantic plea.

But to be honest, her tone never varies.  No, our navigatrix is coolly rational, with the upside and downside sometimes associated with that trait.  Not one to panic, she never shouts.  Not one to show appreciation either, she never congratulates us on handling a tricky interchange properly or making our way to a downtown destination in a strange city without mishap.  Follow her directions or don’t, as you please.  She never takes it personally, nicely satisfying Agreement 2 of the four agreements made famous by Miguel Angel Ruiz.

Indeed, if we could just take her picture, she might serve as the poster girl for Miguel’s book—although with four million in worldwide sales, his book hardly needs a promotional poster.  Always saying precisely what she means, she is impeccable with her word, easily keeping Agreement 1; always doing her best, she consistently steps up to Agreement 4.  On Agreement 3—not making assumptions—we’ll have to cut her a little slack.  She is just a tad close-minded about her choice of route, I find.  But hey, three out of four ain’t bad.

And like the new star employee who makes you up your game at work, our GPS has caused me to reflect on mine a bit.  Maybe I should achieve a tad more precision, or transform persistence into patience (preferably yesterday).  Or maybe I can at least try to remember that in life, as in driving, Plan B can be a necessary part of Arriving at destination.  Maybe I can learn to accept diversions with a bit more aplomb.  After all, few errors are catastrophic.

Recalculating.  Indeed.

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10 Comments

Filed under New Perspectives

10 Responses to One for the Road

  1. Ralph Gibson

    Indeed, the prompts for introspection can have diverse origins, if one is of a mind to recognize them. Despite having listened to “Garmina” for many hours over many trips, I had not taken the lesson you found, so thank you for sharing.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Ralph – We’ve also had some fun here, using the Aussie accent. French words (of which we have many, in and near the Nation’s Capital) are mangled almost beyond recognition, prompting us to realize how much French we’ve absorbed, without yet being able to speak it. And her occasional em-PHA-sis on the wrong sy-LLA-ble phenomenon can be quite hysterical. On further reflection, maybe we don’t get out enough….

  2. Jim taylor

    Your mention of human navigators reminds me of a question asked on the Editors’ Association listserv; someone wanted to know if there was a technical description for the spatial disability of being congenitally incapable of translating a bird’s-eye view of the land (as in a map) into a ground-level awareness of where one was and where one might be going.
    One of the answers offered: Spouse.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim – Hah! Thanks for the (actual) laugh. I once navigated us to a railway line. That little cross-hatched line looked fine to me – it went right where I wanted to go.

  3. Norm Haug

    I find it difficult to not think of my GPS as a real human. When I don’t follow her directions, I cringe waiting for her exasperated, “RECALCULATING” and when I don’t hear from her for a while, I think she is pouting or teaching me a lesson. Sometimes it is necessary to think of devious ways to avoid her scolding In France, where there are often strikes which block the highways, we had to input instructions for very short trips to work our way through the disrupted area without incurring her wrath. That strategy calmed her down.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Norm – I know what you mean about the work-arounds. If we’re taking an unusual way out of town (usually to avoid traffic), we often delay turning her on until we’ve cleared the outskirts. Otherwise, she Just. Will. Not. Quit. I’d say all these tactics indicate a need for some interface improvement. I’ve often wished for a “Yup, got it” button I could push to forestall repeated instructions. Of course, then I lose focus, admiring the scenery, and miss my oft-announced turn….

  4. Reminded me of our recent short drive in the country. I particularly like our projection of dismay onto the GPS when we knowledgeably take a diversion from her preferred route.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Judith – Interesting how obvious it is that we’re projecting when it’s a machine – not quite so obvious, but often just as true, when it’s another person.

  5. Alison Uhrbach

    Loved your post! Brings back memories of using a GPS in a rental car in Los Angeles when I was there with my parents for Kim’s wedding. My first time driving in urban California – and I did not want to go on the freeways – so there was a LOT of “recalculating”!! GPS in rural Alberta is truly not helpful – we’re often “off the grid” and I actually like driving by “guess” in the country – and in Alberta, the straight road grids make it pretty easy.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Alison – Apparently some GPSs will tell you to “do a U-turn at the nearest opportunity” – not sure whether we’ve opted out of that option or ours doesn’t have that option. My favourite is actually “Return to highlighted route.” This when her maps don’t align with the latest reality on the ground, as it were. It’s sort of a throwing hands in the air reaction – “I have no idea where you are – You figure it out!”