Monday, July 6, 2009

Why I Need a New GPS

We all know the old adage about how men never ask for directions. It has something to do with the fragile male ego and being macho, and is probably rooted in some evolutionary trait left over from hunting mastedons. I recently experienced the modern version of this when my wife and I went hiking on some new trails near where we live.

I took along my trusty Garmin Etrax Topo GPS unit. GPS devices are part of the personal technology revolution, right in there with IPODs, cell phones, digital cameras, dvrs, and humongous flat screen tvs. In short, part of the golden age of guy toys. There are GPS devices for cars which make it possible for men not only to avoid asking for directions, but also to actually avoid getting lost. There are also the kind I took on my hike – small, hand-held units that show you the terrain, let you track your path, record your distance traveled, and find your way back to the starting point.

The trail we were following had been described to us but we had no map. We had to rely on rather vague explanations when we came to choice points because there were no signs indicating which way to go. And of course I had my trusty GPS. The route we were trying to follow was a loop that – theoretically – returned us to our car, which we had parked on a road at the trail head.

Things went smoothly for several miles, and my GPS indicated that we were indeed circling back toward the starting point. As we got closer and closer (and more and more tired), I was absolutely sure we were nearer and nearer our car and I knew exactly how to get there, based on the readings from the GPS. But then we came to a choice point where logic and common sense confronted male ego and male techno-worship. By this time we were on a road that was supposed to intersect the road on which we had parked the car. Going one way would take us to the car, according the GPS. However, going in the opposite direction seemed like the logical choice. I insisted on following the GPS. My wife opted for logic. After some increasingly heated exchanges I offered to let her stay while I walked to the car (my way) and then drove back to pick her up.

After I walked alone for another 1/4 mile it became clear from the GPS that the car was located in the middle of a large tree, making it somewhat difficult to drive. I backtracked and together my wife and I walked in the opposite direction, arriving in short order at the car, precisely where we had left it. The GPS was WRONG (the words stick in my throat).

There are probably good reasons why the unit was inaccurate in this situation. But the lesson isn’t simply that you should always trust your senses (common and otherwise) rather that technology – there are too many cases where people have been fooled by faulty perceptions and sensations, sometimes with disastrous results. But trusting technology too much can be problematic too, as my story illustrates. We need to temper our reliance on technology with careful, prudent analysis.

But most important, I need to buy a new GPS.

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