David Cogswell | January 18, 2016 5:01 PM ET
Navigating The Tricky Relationship Between Man and GPS
Just as machines automated physical labor, computers automated intelligence. Machines break down physically. Computers, as I found out recently, sometimes have mental breakdowns.
This recently happened to my GPS. I’ve had the device for years, relied on it for directions and travel data on countless trips. The other day she went crazy.
Please forgive me if it seems strange that I call my GPS a “she” when it’s only a computer. But it is a she. My GPS is a she. It talks like a she. It sometimes acts like a she. When she keeps telling me to take the exit and I keep ignoring her, she tries to be patient and keep calm. But I can tell by the sound of her voice that I am trying her patience.
It’s not that weird to call a GPS a she. People have long imbued machines with personalities. We call ships “she.” We often call cars “he” or “she” and we talk about some machines being “temperamental.” They are temperamental.
If cars have personalities, then intelligent machines do even moreso.
The other day I was driving home to New Jersey through New England, a route I have driven a hundred times or so. I don’t need the GPS to give me directions for the route, but I like to keep it on to show me the time and distance data.
I set the GPS to “home” and started driving. I wasn’t paying much attention to it at first. I had the voice turned down low as I was getting gas and coffee in preparation for the trip. But then as I was driving I gradually became aware that the thing kept telling to turn around.
The measured female voice kept saying, “Take the next exit and turn left…” Every time I declined to turn around as per command, it spun into recalculation mode and then when it was done it started again to tell me to take the next exit.
The time to the destination that it showed kept getting longer, not shorter as it should have. I realized it was trying to get me to go back to where I came from. I figured the “home” setting must have gotten re-programmed to another address. So I tried just punching in my home address in New Jersey. It didn’t change anything. The thing kept trying to tell me to turn around and go back. This continued for hours.
As I got within 50 miles of my destination, the thing finally just flipped out entirely and stopped showing me anything except a sign that said “Can’t calculate route.”
I tried rebooting the thing. That got weird too. It would not allow me to turn it off. Finally I unplugged it and it went black.
Then, of course, the thing got the last laugh on me because I had to drive “dark.” I had gotten so used to having the GPS to provide information about where I am I felt like I had to learn to drive all over again. I was a stranger in a strange land.
I don’t know why suddenly my GPS started exhibiting erratic behavior. Maybe it was just the stress of our relationship. I often don’t follow her directions, and she has to keep recalibrating to accommodate my change in the route.
Sometimes the routes she comes up with just don’t work for me. I’m sorry. Sometimes the calculations don’t seem to fully consider traffic problems that can hit you if you drive through Manhattan. To me it’s worth it to drive a few extra miles if it means I can go around Manhattan.
My GPS doesn’t understand things like that. She’s just working with algorithms that calculate mileage and speed limits. Traffic isn’t part of the formula. So I have to override her sometimes so I won’t get caught in horrible traffic.
Since I never learned how to program the GPS to take the route I want, I just let it keep telling me to take the other route and leave it on for time and distance data. She just keeps repeating herself over and over. I guess it finally drove her crazy. It’s kind of sad.
Computers were created to be our electronic servants, but instead they have become some strange mixture of slave and master. It’s not so simple. Nothing ever turns out the way you expect.
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