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Posts Tagged ‘satnav’


Saturday, August 9th, 2008

“The third level of suffering is the most significant – the pervasive suffering of conditioning. This refers to the very fact of our unenlightened existence, the fact that we are ruled by negative emotions and their underlying root cause, namely our own fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. Buddhism asserts that as long as we are under the control of this fundamental ignorance, we are suffering; this unenlightened existence is suffering by its very nature.”
Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Do you have one of these satnav thingys in your car? I don’t, but I recently had the opportunity to travel in a car that did. Some visiting American friends had a rental Mercedes with a Garmin nüvi 350 provided as part of the package.

Garmin nüvi 350

There’s no doubt it’s an ingenious device, and the fact that it can pinpoint your position in seconds to within 30 feet (10 metres) from 12,500 miles (20,000km) up in space is more than merely cool. After a while of studying it, I got to grudgingly admitting that the thing was kind of useful for those situations where you find yourself in unfamiliar territory without an able navigator with a halfway decent map sitting in the passenger seat.

Grudgingly, because I like to know where I’m going, and if I don’t, I prefer to figure it out using my own resources rather than relying on a machine to do it for me. I’ve got a fairly decent inbuilt compass and photographic recall of maps and it’s generally got me by so far. I wouldn’t want all that to atrophy through disuse. Somehow, abrogating responsibility in this way feels like some kind of cop-out. It’s that whole response-ability thing again. It seems too easy to slip into; to become brainlessly reliant on it to the extent of making ludicrously insane errors because “that’s what the GPS said I should do”. After all, look what’s happened in medicine with the growing reliance on machines to diagnose problems and the simultaneous devaluing of human diagnostic instinct and intuition. “Computer says no …”

I’m wary of disconnecting myself from the immediacy of the road I’m driving and getting lost in a world of virtual reality. But wait. Aren’t I already using a machine rather than my own resources? A machine which has disconnected me from the immediacy of the road I could be walking? But which has conferred the considerable advantage of allowing me to get from A to B 10 to 20 times faster? Haven’t I already happily handed over the function of carrying around a vast repository of fascinating facts to my laptop and its WiFi connection? Which has given me instant access to a gazillion times more fascinating facts while freeing up resources to connect it all in more interesting ways? And isn’t the road I’m driving ultimately no less of a virtual reality than the one depicted on the Garmin’s screen?

What’s wrong here isn’t the GPS, but my attitude to it. I need to get my thinking sorted in relation to conditioning and awareness. It’s not a case of either/or (why is it that our unthinking thinking seems to automatically fall into such stark polarity?), but the efficient and intelligent application of both. Unthinking reliance on conditioned response isn’t unique to the human-IT interface – as Josef Cene could no doubt have told you from his seat in the middle of the Kennet and Avon canal – and we’d be an unredeemingly sad, sorry, humourless species if it was. It’s a potential pratfall in relation to all our patterning and programming, which is itself a fundamental biological imperative exhibited by all life forms in some way or another. But the conditioned response isn’t the problem (that seems a wonderfully efficient device of nature’s to maximise limited intelligence resources). The problem is diverting too much of those limited resources elsewhere and relying on autopilot to take us through situations where some modicum of attentive intelligence is called for. Though if we solved that problem, then we wouldn’t have an awful lot left to laugh at …

GPS-related navigation error

The driver of a £96k Mercedes SL500 had a lucky escape after her satnav directed her down a winding track and straight into the River Sence in Sheepy Magna, Leicestershire.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
C G Jung

Another aspect to this man-and-machine-team thing surfaced when I saw the reactions of my fellow passengers to the Garmin’s voiced instructions. ‘Ms Nüvi’, as ‘she’ was christened, seemed to be deeply irritating. Was it something to do with the subliminal effect of ‘her’ English accent on American sensibilities? Or something far more universal, as Joel Garreau wrote in a recent Washington Post piece?

“Personal GPS-based navigation devices in cars – the ones that say “In 500 feet turn left” – are far and away the most abundant machines smart enough to talk to us and sometimes listen. Nonetheless, humans continue to perceive them as surly, dumb or frantic – especially when the bot realizes you think you’re smarter than it is.”

Garreau goes on to write about several of the various developments under way to imbue navigation systems with some simulacrum of ‘personality’ in an attempt to make them more context-responsive and user-friendly.

“Given how much people hated their current navbots – it surprised no one when Mercedes owners christened their Teutonic dominatrixes “Helga” – the innovators viewed allowing the owner to customize the personality of this device as a must. The reverse would also make sense. The device should be able to shape itself to the owner, learning not to be too chatty before the human’s first cup of coffee – detecting stress or other psychological conditions in the voice of the driver.

“These seers believed if they worked hard enough, such devices would start to become common in the 2010 model year. They were evangelistic about how much you’d like the result, especially the first time it said, “I can tell from the direction we’re going and the reports I’m getting from up ahead that there’s no way we’re going to be able to pick up your daughter at her school on time. Would you like me to call her and tell her we’ll be 17 minutes late?”

“There was no name for this device. The designers called it simply “The Entity.””

This all seems completely back to front and inside out to me. By their very natures, machines are inflexible and human beings aren’t. What machine could ever accommodate the limitless variety of preferences and situations human beings put themselves in? The computing power of such a navbot would require the resources of a small power station to run and the omniscience of a minor deity. No wonder the designers called it “The Entity”. Yet this is something a human being can do on no more than a bowl of salad and a glass of water. Why are we expending such vast amounts of energy and effort in working against the nature of things? It’s our own nature that’s the one of almost limitless flexibility, not the machine’s. The only inflexibility is in our attitudes and perceptions which, no matter how fixed, can change in an instant given the right circumstances.

Isn’t it far more sensible and efficient to let both human and machine operate according to their intrinsic natures? It’s about teamwork. It’s about responsibility and response-ability. If your navbot drives you nuts, then what does that tell you about you? It’s not the machine that has the problem, so it’s not the machine’s software issue. The machine is just the mirror here. It’s you that needs reprogramming.

So will I get me a Garmin? Probably not. I don’t make enough trips to places I don’t know to justify the expense. And though I’m grateful to it for reflecting back to me those issues around trust and control I need to work on, part of that is about leaving the door open to getting lost once in a while; to the accidental opportunities that have a way of allowing the unexpected, the awesome, the amazing, the side-splittingly humorous, and the downright miraculous into life. And it’s all surprisingly effortless.

“If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Thanks to the current insanity revolving around homeopathy in this country, in both media and blogosphere, it's become necessary to insult your intelligence by explicitly drawing your attention to the obvious fact that any views or advice in this weblog/website are, unless stated otherwise, the opinions of the author alone and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you choose to take anything from here that might be construed as advice, you do so entirely under your own recognisance and responsibility.

smeddum.net - Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard