Where Am I?

Aug 4, 2014

When I need to find my way around in this complicated world my navigation system, which has always served me well, consists of a collection of tattered maps and street guides, some of them dating back to the 1960s, and a small pocket compass that points randomly in all directions.

The opportunity to move into a new age of technology came this summer with a car rental that included, as part of the contract, a free portable global positioning system. This turned out to be a little gadget, half the size of a folded road map, with an even smaller set of instructions printed in smudged ink on a scrap of paper, and apparently translated from the Chinese by somebody whose first language was Swedish.

However this was a brand new, state of the art, twenty first century GPS, and I couldn’t wait to try it. But I didn’t throw away my maps quite yet, which was just as well.A paper map shows you the way and takes you right there. The makers of GPS systems have decided that this is much too easy. First you need to persuade the machine to recognize where you want to go, even though you yourself know this already. Your GPS also knows the one and only right way to get there, and will not change its tiny electronic mind, so forget about any creative diversions. If you prefer to use an unconventional route to avoid traffic, for example, or to view some attractive scenery, you are out of luck.

When I plugged in the GPS it thought it was in Wisconsin and had to be convinced that it was actually in France. Then, as a test, I asked to be guided to the nearest town a few miles away, on a road I knew well. It demanded a street name and number, which I didn’t have, then offered half a dozen towns with similar names that I might perhaps prefer to visit.  Finally, grudgingly, it allowed me to move off, speaking in a flat, authoritarian voice that sounded like a Midwestern school teacher. She had not studied the language of the country she was in, and pronounced the names phonetically which made them entertaining but incomprehensible.

She got me on to the right road, after a great deal of what she called "re-calibrating," but it was good that I already knew the way because my electronic guide had little sympathy for human foibles, or even for geographical reality. When I took a small detour into a village she ordered: “Stop, turn round.” This was in a village street eight feet wide where I had no more prospect of turning than of flying, and that was a one-way street in any case.

The GPS lit up with enthusiasm whenever we approached a gas station, in spite of the appalling prices, but she didn’t warn me of really important things like speed limits, lurking gendarmes, mad teenagers, or sheep on the road. She was far from infallible. On the return journey, which she did not seem to enjoy, she ordered me to turn right into the front window of a pharmacy instead of left into the main street.

The car and its navigation system went back to the rental agency, and I went back to my collection of moth-eaten maps. Maps worked for Columbus, more or less, and for all the great explorers down to recent times. I may soon be the last person in the world to use a paper map, but I may also be the last to actually know where I am.

Copyright: David Bouchier