I Can’t Get There From Here

March 14, 2009 06:51 AM

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing then a little technology could be mentally lethal. At Christmas (despite my abysmal naughty/nice ratio) I received one of those little GPS devices you can mount in your car, so a highly disinterested but still vaguely enticing voice can tell you where to go.

While I have written about these things before, it was from a distance. I had no idea of the long-term effects of possessing my very own. Of course, now that I have one of these gadgets, directional capability is routinely featured on $4 cell phones (for people who can see well enough to do that sort of thing).

Well, actually it's even more fun to use than it sounds. In fact, the first few times that you try it will usually end up as veritable laughfests.

"Turn right in 1.1 miles," your solid-state Sacajawea states.

Hilarious! The experience is reminiscent of what happened when vehicles first got those outside temperature readouts. I remember riding in a truck with three other farmers to the National Farm Machinery Show. Every time the temperature readout went up or down, we'd point and whoop and slap each other on the back.

No wonder our yields were so much lower back then.

But while the novelty of the thing wears off rather quickly, its actual utility sinks in so deeply that it rapidly displaces any orienteering capability you might have acquired during a lifetime of going from A to B.

To be sure, you'll remain skeptical of the accuracy for a while. You'll make wrong turns on purpose just to see if "she" gets upset. You'll take shortcuts you think are more efficient. You'll ask for directions to Thai restaurants and organic zoos.

You'll test it while walking in a strange city—which is all of them for me. No more retracing steps or suffering the ignominy of asking strangers for directions to a building you are standing in front of.

You may also be initially doubtful of the estimates of arrival times and whether the optimal route has been properly calculated. But after a few episodes of telling your spouse you will be home at 9:52 and subsequently arriving just then, both of you will be unnerved into confidence.

Finally, you just believe, listen and do as you're told. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed has arrived in your life. Yeah, I know—another one?

Alas, after only a few weeks, a strange level of atrophy develops in users' brains, I think. If you don't have to pay attention to the route, pretty soon you don't.

Reminds me of a time. The situation is similar to the awakening my sons went through when they arrived at that most blessed age, 16. At that moment, they became independently mobile—fully accredited to the rights and privileges of operating a vehicle.

Except that they didn't know how to get anywhere farther than the mailbox at the end of our driveway.

Growing up, trips in the car were an occasion to read, sleep or have imaginary adventures with action figures. I don't think it ever occurred to them to look out the windows, let alone plot a travel course.

Consequently, after passing their exam and getting their license they would routinely quiz Jan and me on how to get to the movies, the mall with the running-shoes store or the next town. Directions to friends' houses in the country were a revelation to them, although few lived more than five miles away.

It could be that if you start your travel life chauffeured around in a massive safety enclosure that allows you to see only small portions of the car ceiling, it takes a while to grasp the concept of transportation.

Now fast-forward this phenomenon to today. My depopulating brain is looking to offshore any task it can. Throw in an overactive talent for fantasizing and many man-years
behind the steering wheel of something or other. The cultivated (literally) talent of driving effectively using only seven or eight neurons at the top of my brain stem has been the core competency of my career to this point.

But couple instinctive driving skills with reliable outside supervision and there is no need for my brain to hang around at all on long trips. Case in point: I had a meeting at Murray State University recently. I got there exactly on time, met with some wonderful people and arrived back home safely. According to the odometer, I traveled some 600 miles altogether.
Sounds great, only I have no idea where I went. All I remember is a little car going down a squiggly red line while "keeping left" at the appropriate times.

This is a scary trend. At the rate my personal navigation skills are eroding, soon I may not be able to get from the TV to the dinner table unguided. Clearly, there's only one responsible action to take—carry extra batteries.

John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of "U.S. Farm Report." Visit www.agweb.com for station listings. To view past columns, visit  www.farmjournal.com or www.johnwphipps.com.

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