March 11, 2010

Overdependence on technology

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I like a lot of the conveniences that modern technology provides. At the same time, there is so much new stuff that is coming out that I feel reluctant to waste my time learning things that will prove to be transient. I am also somewhat cheap and tend to wait until the dust has settled and only the truly useful is left standing before spending money on it. So an early adopter I am not. I tend to keep an eye on trends but not adopt anything new unless I think I really need it or it solves a problem that I have or it looks like something that will really improve my life.

Personal GPS navigation systems have so far not passed that threshold. Yes, I can see that it might be fun to have but so far I am not persuaded that it is a must-have.

Last Friday, someone knocked on my office door. He said that he was looking for a conference that the university was hosting. I knew that there was nothing going on in my building and asked him why he had come there. He said that this was the place that his GPS has sent him to. I asked him if he could give me the name of the building where it was to be held or the people organizing it so I might be able to help him more easily. He said no. He had simply plugged some information into his GPS device and followed its directions to the end, which happened to be my building.

It so happened that I was able, from the topic of the conference, to track down the exact location and send him on his way. But I marveled at his total dependence on technology.

He is not alone. Recently my cousin was driving to New York City from Toronto for a wedding that I also attended and depended totally on his GPS system to get him there. For some reason, the street address of the hotel was not the address that you are supposed to insert into the GPS to get accurate directions, but he overlooked that and as a result he got lost and spent several wasted hours wandering around NYC (at the end of a long drive from Toronto when everyone in the car was already tired and irritable) until he found the hotel. It had not occurred to him to carry a map with the location of the hotel on it or to use MapQuest or similar sources to gets directions as backup.

While these two cases were benign, overdependence on GPS can be potentially deadly as one Oregon couple found when they blindly followed their GPS directions into a remote forest road and became stuck in the snow for three days before they were rescued.

I myself do not use GPS because I find that I am perfectly able to get to places with just street maps or with help from MapQuest. I also dislike the idea of voices breaking into my consciousness when I am driving and telling me what to do, when most of the time I don't need directions. Before I leave to go anywhere unfamiliar, I make sure that I have located my destination on a map and created a visual map in my head, and I take actual maps with me as a backup.

There s nothing wrong with using GPS. What surprises me is that some people are totally dependent on it and have no plan B, no backup, if the GPS goes awry.

POST SCRIPT: Wedding speeches

Over my lifetime I have attended many weddings and listened to quite a few speeches and I must say that That Mitchell and Webb Look captures their over-the-top praise nature well.


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He wasn't entirely dependent on technology... he depended on you, too!

-- or rather, his trust in his social instincts to find someone to help him if he needed.

I have no response about the couple in the woods, however. That sounds like the trust in their instincts was misplaced.

Posted by Evan on March 11, 2010 09:56 AM

Mano - GPS certainly aren't the only tech-crutches available. Several classmates of mine (in law school) suffer signficantly on exams, because the testing software doesn't have a spellchecker. These are college graduates, unable to spell commonly used words because their computers have always done it for them.

And to be fair, I still can't drive stick shift.

I think there is a point in every person's life where technology after that is new & strange, so you never really integrate it in. This is why my father is a wizard at MS-DOS, but needs help with the simplest of tasks in any modern OS.

Posted by Eric on March 11, 2010 10:15 AM

Certainly there's one device that no one should be without.

Posted by Paul Jarc on March 11, 2010 11:52 AM


I love that device!

Posted by Mano on March 11, 2010 12:27 PM

I don't like GPS devices at all. I find that they interrupt my concentration and generally are a distraction. Sometimes friends who have them in their cars will try to use their GPS to supplement my directions, which I detest. How can they trust their computer more than someone who actually knows the route and has experience driving it? Does GPS alert you about tricky intersections, a bad pothole in the left lane, or that shortcut behind the Kroger?

Additionally, route calculations are not always correct. They always seem to find the most circuitous route to the highway. Plus they don't take into account traffic volumes, road conditions or types of intersections (for example I prefer to turn left at intersections where I know there is a left turn lane and a light if possible). I would much rather take all of these things into account and alter my route accordingly than be blindly guided by what the computer thinks is best.

I always take some pride from being able to find alternate routes when my primary one is blocked, and sometimes I will try out something new without consulting a map at all, just to see if I'm right. I like to see how the city is connected. It gives me a better sense of where I am and how to get from place to place. (Actually I would prefer to walk, because I feel even more connected to wherever I am, but that is often impossible due to the distances necessary to travel in short periods of time.)

I think things like GPS in cars cause people to think less and be less knowledgeable about their surroundings and generally aide cognitive laziness. I'm afraid I'm in the minority here, however.

You might find this article from Slate of interest:

Posted by Chris on March 12, 2010 08:31 AM

First of all, on the "device." It appeared in a "Man from U.N.C.L.E." episode called "The Finny Foot Affair" in November 1964, as demonstrated by the then 13-year-old Kurt Russell. Don't ask me how I know.

As for the GPS, I think it's a brilliant invention, though you always have to be aware of changes in traffic patterns, etc. from what's on the gps map. My preference, however, is to turn off the voice guidance and just use it as a map with my car placed in real-time. Being able to do this in unfamiliar cities, to see the desired street coming up ahead, or to see nearby exits during Interstate travel, is a great advantage, and not annoying as long as it's not telling me where to turn!

Posted by Ross on March 12, 2010 12:43 PM

I use GPS, but I always have back up directions I have printed from Google maps or Mapquest. When I have needed my GPS in an emergency, it was worth it only if it had the address I wanted in it. Many times it doesn't have small town addresses in it.
A GPS should never replace COMMON SENSE.

Posted by Wedding Planner on June 3, 2010 11:45 AM

GPS is really useful in that you don't have to be referring to maps while driving but if you have no knowledge about the area its pretty easy to end up in the totally wrong part of town.

Posted by Wedding Invitations on July 19, 2010 02:30 PM

It really is too bad that people are starting to forget how to read a basic map. In fact, most tourist maps are written at a 3rd grade level, and now many can't even read those.

Posted by James on July 24, 2010 05:40 PM

A GPS is a nice tool but even they mess up directions. I prefer to use Mapqueset and get step by step instructions prior to my adventure so that I have an idea of how to get to the destination.

Posted by Best Man Wedding Toasts on August 7, 2010 03:06 PM

When it comes to GPS I feel better with some maps and a cell phone (in case of emergency).About the video of the Best Man Speech - It sure looks like the Best Man needs some help with speech ideas.
E. Lindsay

Posted by Best Man Speech Tips on September 5, 2010 06:11 PM

I have used my GPS to get out of a few tight spots, but I wish that it had the ability to tell you that you were headed for a "bad" neighborhood. I got turned around in Oakland and the GPS got me back to where I needed to be, but it was definitely not a trip through the best part of town.

The video from That Mitchell and Webb Look is too funny.

Posted by Bridesmaid on October 19, 2010 10:24 AM

I've been using my map book for many years and doing well. I was recently thinking of getting a GPS for my car since I'm always driving to new locations. I appreciate your following comment “...dislike the idea of voices breaking into my consciousness when I am driving and telling me what to do...”. Reminds me of the time a GPS in a rental car had me driving in circles and kept giving me vague directions in it's monotonous voice. I now find myself in no rush to replace my map book with a GPS!

Posted by Christina on November 6, 2010 09:46 PM

I totally agree with your point of view on relying on GPS systems as the main or only means for direction. I think perhaps those who do use GPS as their only mean of direction, is perhaps because they may still be a little ignorant to the fact that they do not always present the most accurate directions and have yet to have gotten themselves lost or have been majorly delayed to their destinations. All in all, I personally think of it as a mental challenge when looking at a map, making a mental picture of the directions and then getting to your destination based on your memory. Of course you must make sure to bring the map with you in case you forget some directions!

Posted by Chris on December 1, 2010 08:44 AM

Hi I agree that we should not always rely on GPS. So many times I have heard people saying that they have been lost using one. I think if you can plan where you are going prior to starting off with contact details you can at least have an idea where you are heading if you get lost.

Posted by Stella's Wheels on December 7, 2010 08:03 AM

An interesting article. I'm in the forces and i rely heavily on GPS on exercises and operations. I must agreee that there are some flaws with GPS but as a handheld device it is exceptional, although you can't solely rely on them. They are less accurate when used in a vehicle due to speed your travelling and the time it takes for GPS to constantly update itself. But refering back to a hand held when your in the middle of the desert or in suffield, Canada it is faultless.

Posted by NI Bridal on February 6, 2011 08:26 AM

Driving in Miami my GPS caused me to drive through a bad part of town and my daughter and I just about got car jacked!

Posted by Spring Mata on February 7, 2011 03:23 PM

I was looking for articles on wedding speeches and got caught up in your article about GPS. Society has become dependent on GPS devices, to the point it is almost scary.

Posted by Pam on February 10, 2011 01:14 PM

I was driving in London Uk and GPS wasn't able to update quick enough so i ended up getting lost. Maybe GPS should be saved for motorway driving

Posted by Best Study Techniques on February 13, 2011 09:29 AM

While GPS has become a crutch to many people for ground-based navigation, it is still a very useful tool for aviation. In flight, it increases safety not only by minimizing cockpit distractions (i.e. no more looking down at maps when you should be looking outside or at the instrument panel), but it also eases pilot workloads and reduces fatigue which may result in human error.

GPS should serve as an aid and not a substitute for conventional navigation. It's a great idea to take more time planning for a trip, practice old-fashioned map reading during your trips and using specific checkpoints (i.e. road signs or prominent landmarks), just in case the GPS fails, for one reason or another, you haven't gotten yourself lost and lost your basic skills.

Just like anything else, if you don't use it, you lose it.

Posted by Laine Luscombe on February 18, 2011 12:12 AM

I totally agree with the point that we should not depend totally on the technology. Sometimes it can fall short of your expectations and destroy your whole schedule and planning.The importance of technology is an admitted fact.But in some circumstances its use should be avoided.

Posted by Wedding on March 26, 2011 03:21 PM

I agree that it's good to have a backup plan in the event that technology fails. I usually read through MapQuest directions before I drive somewhere even though I have a Magellan GPS unit in the car. While my Magellan GPS unit hasn't failed me yet, having an idea of where I'm going before I leave makes me more confident that I'll know how to get to the location I need to in case something goes wrong with my GPS. Backup plans like that prevent you from being overdependent on technology – although technology seems to be more reliable in this day of age more than ever before.

Posted by Magellan on March 30, 2011 01:10 PM

I totally agree with you. We just can't fully dependent on technology, except if the technology was very reliable and has mature. However i am curious that the guy just totally misguided by the gps. He must have entered the wrong address or POI in the gps.

Posted by Andy on April 14, 2011 10:36 AM

I am always amazed at how people get stuck on their technology, like that woman who used Google maps to plot a running trail and ended up getting hit by a truck because she ignored the fact that she was crossing a highway, since it wasn't on the map. I prefer a paper map myself and do the same as you . . . plot it out ahead of time and have a backup along.

Posted by Mark on April 19, 2011 07:37 PM

i can not agree with you anymore. one time i drove a car to a tourism place, but i failed to find the place because the GPS system led to a wrong site. i think we must take a map on hand.

Posted by gps on May 4, 2011 10:28 PM

gps are more trouble than what they are worth - ive got lost more times than ive found a place - and those annoying voices- give me a road map anyday

Posted by bruce on May 26, 2011 02:39 AM

GPS drives me nuts. So often they will send you on a wild goose chase for no reason. Unless you know the area you don't even realise this and you end up driving far longer and further than you need to. Read a map instead!

Posted by andy on September 24, 2011 08:47 AM

The wedding video is hilarious. In twenty years of attending weddings, I have come across some pretty bad speeches, but this one was pure class.

Posted by NI Wedding Photographer on September 29, 2011 09:01 AM