Don't fight, 'recalculate': What we can learn from our GPS robots

Virginia Heffernan
Yahoo! News

By Virginia Heffernan

It’s the holidays, so suit up: it’s time to get in a car and fight!

Just like table-setting and side-taking after divorces, every family does car fights in its own way. Your clan might have the silent seething kind, where passengers meanly don isolating headphones and turn up Ke$ha. Or maybe yours prefers a hissed quarrel—yes I KNOW the joint is on Jive Street because I GREW UP HERE—or the truly mutinous life-changer where someone demands to be let out on the highway shoulder.

Pricey kids’ carseats with sanity-eroding “restraint systems” may be involved. Gung-ho seniors who have nothing but blindspots. Beans in Corningware. Too much wind or too little, or heat, or Gangnam Style on Spotify. Someone has overpacked; someone can’t get cell service; someone backed the rented Dodge into a Porsche Cayenne.
But as sure as tryptophan stupefies and holidays eventually satisfy, a fight will erupt. Best to prepare. For that we need but one word, courtesy of our loyal robot driving companion—The Global Positioning System—composed and focused through wails and quips and rants.

That word is recalculating.

Given the place of honor awarded to navigation in family fights—and the various clichés about who can’t ask for directions, who can’t fold a map and who gets lost in a rest-stop bathroom stall—the GPS, with its celestial wisdom, would seem to be an instrument of car peace. It is not. Like most technology, the GPS merely amplifies our humanness. What’s more, sooner or later, it becomes a player in the drama itself.

How else to explain the state-of-the-art hothead fights between a motorist and his GPS, when the device seems cruelly to have chosen the most trafficky route, and can’t—in spite of its composed and actressy voice— pronounce “La Jolla,” “Houston Street” or even “route”? The GPS keeps its cool, usually, but yet the driver is sure she can hear unmistakable clenched teeth as it insists upon the superiority of its godlike view over the street-level myopia of mere mortals.

And the GPS turns the old he said-she said direction wrangling into a full-on threeway. Maybe he wants to trust the GPS and she’d rather freestyle, claiming superior intuition or a nicely legible Google Map. Maybe she doesn’t like the interface on this one; the Garmin is much better. Maybe he wants to set aside some time to decry Apple for trying to best Google with its own tyro Maps app—and in so doing mount a case against capitalism.

Hazardous personality defects surface like ice slicks during these multi-party direction squabbles. Does he really think a machine is out to confound him? Can she really not look up from her iPhone and just spot the exit with her two eyes? Why does he call a guy whom he cut off a jackass?

And finally: why do we have to do this together?!?!

That is the existential question the GPS is, for all its flaws, prepared to address.

It addresses the question by not addressing it.

By not asking why you are going back to the airport when you were just there this morning. By not asking why you still can’t find your way from Rip Road to Haskins when you have been going back and forth between them all weekend. By not asking why you can’t just use a regular map.

There are no whys in GPS land. We’re just here; we’re just doing this; and we’re doing it together. There is just a start point and an end point, and they keep changing. The end becomes the start, and vice-versa. On Apple and Google Maps, both of them, you can switch the departure and arrival points with a handy swap icon.

And if you spaz out and lose faith in the satellite map—the view from the stars, the GPS view—and you suddenly angrily cut off at an early exit, or space out in conversation and miss yours altogether, the GPS does not ask what caused you to make such an imbecilic mistake. No. It whirs for a split second and says: Recalculating.

It made a certain logistical suggestion of a route. You chose to follow, which it took in stride, taking it neither an indication of your passivity nor of your good sense. Then you chose to stray. There was nothing immoral in that, either. A line just didn’t match another line. It happens. And when trajectories don’t match—when you have one expectation and I have another—we’re still in it together; there’s nothing for it but to change. To adapt. To recalculate.

And the GPS does so. With zen-like equanimity. Recalculating. It might just be that easy. You didn’t do what I thought you’d do, what I hoped you’d do, what I longed for you to do. And I didn’t do what you thought, hoped and longed for me to do. It was impossible. We were human. Recalculating.

Presto: a new route. Nothing to forgive or resent; nothing to fear or control. Just a new route. Sure, you can hear smugness or impatience in the GPS “recalculating” voice if you choose. But you can also hear the wisdom of the heavens, from which the wayfinding satellites gaze down at our tangled human streets. Happy Thanksgiving.