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Blairsville, GA. Recently my wife and I took a trip to New York City. To alleviate the trials of navigating an unfamiliar city, my sister offered to let us use her GPS. We accepted her kindness, typed in the address, stuck the thing on the windshield, and set off. Before we even left the neighborhood, a kind but authoritative voice began giving orders. But the commands were not onerous and I readily turned left when told to do so. Soon we were on the highway, merging into the steady flow of traffic, and headed toward the Big Apple.

The voice was a woman’s. From the beginning, we found ourselves thinking and speaking of it as a her. “She said we need to get into the right lane and prepare to exit.” It was almost like having a wise and concerned aunt riding shotgun. She spoke with supreme confidence, and within a few short miles, I had put my faith in her, I mean it.

But something strange happened during a long stretch of highway where no turns were called for. I missed the voice. After 10 or 15 miles of silence, I found myself wanting some reassurance, merely a verbal pat on the head, just a “you’re doing fine, Mark.” I found myself wishing we’d brought a map so I could confirm that this little machine mounted with a suction cup was not leading us astray. When finally it was time to exit, her soothing instructions set my mind once more at ease. No longer did I pine for a map. She was in charge, and we were in her hands. When I missed a turn, my new friend patiently intoned “recalculating” (did I detect a note of frustration?) and reset our course.

My wife and I were both amazed at the accuracy of this new technology and the ease that it brought to our venture into the city. But I wonder. Is the ease a technology affords the only criterion by which it should be judged? To be sure, the GPS frees drivers from the trouble of figuring out how to reach their destinations. No more uncertain attempts to divine one’s location; no more squinting at the maps, no more failed attempts to fold the accordion and finally giving up and crumpling it into the glove compartment. Best of all, no more frustrated arguments and no more asking for directions.

It is not only drivers who now employ a GPS. Hikers and backpackers are encouraged to carry a GPS as they venture into the wilderness. Again, this no doubt adds a sense of security to the wilderness experience, but is something lost in the transaction? Is the wilderness, well, less wild, when rescuers can locate distressed hikers with all the precision of a guided missile? When a person enters the wild equipped only with a map, provisions, and wits, the sense of freedom is profound. But so, too, is the sense of adventure and even danger that necessarily accompanies any serious foray into wild places. Do we really want to make the wilderness safe?

I am, in retrospect, bothered by how quickly I fell into dependency. I am disturbed by how willing I was to submit to the supremely confident voice of this technological marvel. Ultimately, I wonder if the freedom afforded by this device came at a price. I wonder if this feeling of freedom is perhaps more accurately a sense of security that the GPS creates and not really freedom at all.

One might object to this line of thought and say that if risk and insecurity are good things and if I am suspicious about the effects of the GPS, why not dispense with maps as well? The difference, I think, is related to skill. Reading a map requires serious and intelligent engagement. Whether one is in a new city or in the wilds of Alaska, successfully reading a map takes attention, experience, and judgment. One can never abdicate the responsibility to make crucial decisions based on a complex series of observations and comparisons about the world. One can navigate well or badly. The risk of getting lost makes the entire enterprise laden with meaning. The GPS requires nothing except obedience. No skill. No judgment. One does not need to pay attention; instead, one need only do as instructed and all will be well.

The GPS is merely a recent example of our continued attempt to render the world secure by virtue of the technologies we embrace. Technology, of course, is not limited simply to mechanical devices. Bureaucracy is a modern technique by which governments can operate more effectively and thereby serve us more assiduously. The modern banking system is a technique by which money can be managed in a way that stabilizes the consequences of irrational behavior and unexpected events. Bureaucracy, banking, and, more broadly, the entire modern cult of the expert draws us in by the supremely confident tones of the practitioners. We are induced to trust them because the world of finance or government policy is so complex and sophisticated that the average person feels helpless to understand it much less confront it in any meaningful way. Besides, if they, whoever they are, can only get things on track, everything will be fine. Our uncertain world will be stabilized, and we can exercise our freedom in the context of that new and improved place.

But this leads us to a question: is meaningful and robust freedom compatible with a world rendered secure by our technical cleverness? Does a completely secure world have any space for meaningful freedom? In a world of absolute security, or the impression thereof, would we even miss the freedom that has been lost? As long as we can still choose from a variety of goods and services, we will surely think ourselves free. But when we are conditioned by habit to obey the gentle voice of the GPS, our imaginations are reduced to a state of expectancy rather than creativity. We listen for “her” voice and respond when she speaks. We accept the decisions of the financial “experts” because they know what is best. We obey political authority without questioning the justice of the demands. We may, in short, find ourselves increasingly obedient and secure but less free in any meaningful sense.

I don’t mean that we will be slaves or prisoners. My concern is that the way we encounter the world will be altered. When we focus our attention on the GPS and trust it to take us to our destination, we interact with the world in a way that is fundamentally different than when we are forced to rely on our own navigation skills. When we travel to a new city or enter the wilderness unarmed with a GPS, we take matters more seriously, for the uncertainties of the wilderness must be attended to and the sense of security afforded by the technology is replaced by skill, judgment, and humility. Perhaps the possibility of getting lost is a good thing.

Furthermore, isn’t it a false sense of security that the GPS provides? What would happen if the satellites went down or the batteries died? Does our dependence breed incompetence? When we no longer need to ask for directions, does our technology foster our solitude? If everyone depended on a GPS, would anyone know where to go or how to get there? Would we any longer attend to the details of the journey, the spatial and temporal relations that situate us meaningfully in a particular place?

Humans have always sought to make the world more secure. But when the devices and methods to that end serve as proxies for judgment and engagement, something has been lost. If a technology requires submission rather than skill, trust rather than effort, we might be justified in asking if the price of this security is the inclination to engage the world as free creatures. I wonder if the price is too high.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

13 COMMENTS

  1. As what The Concept calls “Map Man”, I refuse to let a damned infernal little squeaking broad in a box tell me where to go or when to turn. Damned things let Admiral Poindexter hunkered down in that off-the-books Total Information Awareness office in the sub-sub to the sub basement of the Pentagon know exactly where you are at all times , obliging me to have to ask him how the donuts were this morning or how fresh that Turkish Camel dung he smokes is. It’s just another damned responsibility I caint abide.

    Maps open up possibilities and force one to not only look at where you are going but what else might also be around for a little episodic serendipitous elucidation. How else would one be afforded the opportunity to see the “World’s Largest Walk-in Walleye”? Not to mention…maps are a thing of beauty to be cherished in advance so one is not harried in one’s purposeful journey. To live fully, one must properly plan and only practice dead reckoning as a high art.

    And, let us not forget, if we were all to use these little life-fer-ijits devices, one of the great and abiding pleasures of co-piloting womanhood would be dashed: The act of mirthful enjoyment in watching the pending Krakatoa Pilot driving around a-festering because you refuse to get out and ask for directions. Last time I relented at The Concept’s entreaties to pleeze spare her and stop and get directions, I was in a little town in upstate New York and pulled into the first gas station and asked. Thence ensued some kind of relic Arthurian Pidgin from several toothless rustics…a community of Austrapalithicus New Yorkii it would seem…. which made no sense at all so I smiled innocently, tipped my hat and backed slowly out. Then, I pulled into a Kwik Stop and The Punjabi Officiating looked at me with indifference and offered to sell me a map for “tree ninety nine, good deal, take it”. Indignant, I stomped out and drove down to the next gas station whereupon I was treated to some deep anthropological gruntings, primal gurns and furiously waving sign language that would have challenged the great Dead Reckoner Ibn Buttata himself and so I gave up to find a cell phone tower so we could call and get talked into the destination. Leaving the charming little decrepit burg, I was informed of why things were the way they were. There, at the exit, was a sign that proclaimed “Birthplace of Colonel Oliver North”.

  2. I was resistant to the GPS gizmo too. But there’s this really nasty disconnect in my very capable ability to read a map & tell direction and my wife’s superb driving abilities. That is, we’re both very adept at those things, yet in the thick of traffic, we cannot combine our skills to peaceably navigate unfamiliar surroundings. I read the map and give what I perceive to be clear directions, yet she can’t seem to follow them.

    The Garmin gurus have solved this! That insightful little wizard tells which ever one of us is driving exactly where to go in clear and understandable terms.

    But I do kinda wonder if the glut of these gadgets will result in whole new generations of people who can’t read a map. Will our children be helpless with some disconnected voice to spoonfeed them directions one turn at a time?

  3. i’m waiting for {actually, shuddering} at the uses the criminal crowd will use this for. Somewhere, somehow, SOMEBODY is going to figure out how to use this technology to rob you, rape you, or worse. Somebody always does. Then, some version will come along that tells a operater where you are, all the time, in the name of being SAFE. {OnStar}. Then the goverment will demand that such a system be put in your cars black box, then……well, you see how this could end up. One day you couldn’t drive to the grocery store without some one knowing about it. Call me paranoid, but I wouldn’t bet against it……….

  4. Several tidbits related to the topic:

    1. In the news recently, the GAO predicts that the GPS system could fail next year: http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/165126/gps_system_could_begin_to_fail_within_a_year.html

    2. There are now apps that let you track people with your cell phone (consensually): http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/21/technology/personaltech/21smart.html

    3. There are proposals in several states to place GPS devices in every car to track mileage for taxation purposes to replace the gas tax for highway maintenance: http://www.gazettetimes.com/articles/2008/12/28/news/community/1aaa02_road.txt

  5. Mark,

    A part of your article reminds me of raising my children. You stated “But this leads us to a question: is meaningful and robust freedom compatible with a world rendered secure by our technical cleverness? Does a completely secure world have any space for meaningful freedom? In a world of absolute security, or the impression thereof, would we even miss the freedom that has been lost? As long as we can still choose from a variety of goods and services, we will surely think ourselves free. But when we are conditioned by habit to obey the gentle voice of the GPS, our imaginations are reduced to a state of expectancy rather than creativity.” As I looked at this in conjunction with the preceding paragraph which stated “Bureaucracy, banking, and, more broadly, the entire modern cult of the expert draws us in by the supremely confident tones of the practitioners. ” and it made me think of my children.

    Am I reducing their freedom and stifling their creativity when I tell them (as an expert?) not to touch the hot stove? If I spank their hand if they reach the hot stove (not had to do yet) am I stopping my child from being creative? You make it sound that security limits freedom and creativity yet children usually have the best creativity and if their parents are any good they are normally very secure. I would also say that the child is still free to do as it wants knowing what the consequences are (at least normally).

    In other words I think you have tried to make it an issue of security VS freedom and creativity. I think that one has nothing to do with the other.

    I do not own a GPS and do not plan to purchase one but I remember a trip to Miami where I and my co-pilot almost got into a big fight because we were lost and communication broke down. I am sure that a GPS would have helped with that.

    I do believe that if a person has something that they have difficulty with they should help cover that up with the tools available. I do not believe that a GPS limits freedom any more than I believe using a fork limits freedom. A tool is a tool it is what you do with the tool that counts.

  6. Mr Beemer

    I take your point, but I still think that this technology, like any other, has a darkside to it. And while it will increase sucurity, it WILL be used for wrong purposes. I wasn’t saying that a GPS device limits freedom. I was making the point that eventually this will be used for bad ends by somebody. Like cell phones. I grew up in a family of telephone people. My romance with communications technology was over, oh about age 5.
    Cell phones have made it safer for people to walk alone at night. However they have made being in public a fustration. To the point public places have to put in jammers to have any peace. Now people are crashing trollies and buses while texting on them. All I am saying, I wish sometimes like the Amish, we stopped and asked ” how will this technology be used?” before we all buy into it. thats all I meant to say.

  7. The GPS succeeds where the map fails because the GPS implies that at the end of the journey you’re going to get laid. Her voice ain’t about security. It’s about impurity.

    It goes without saying, though I’ll say it anyway, that those who love maps are morally superior to those who rely on “her”–just as those who travel without either are more superior to both. And those who follow stars are the most superiorest of all.

    Proof whereof: think of the story a GPS would have robbed Fr. Sabin of.

  8. “But this leads us to a question: is meaningful and robust freedom compatible with a world rendered secure by our technical cleverness?”

    Great post though I would have to disagree with your use of the word “secure.” I would replace it above with either the word “easy” or the phrase “the illusion of security.” That seems more accurate in my book.

    As a woman who drives almost everywhere including cross country for many years, I can tell you the last gadget I’m interested in buying for my car is a GPS. So many reasons for this, I cannot count the ways. But one of them I’ve noticed when riding in friends’ cars and trucks is they all get them for Christmas and they’re gone or broken two months later, at most.

    I do think cell phones in cars are wonderful. Jumper cables. And on and on. But GPS keeps us in an easy fog as much as it purports to help us.

  9. brierrabbit3030,

    I would not disagree with your analysis that GPS systems will be used for something else. In fact almost all technology has the ability to be used for bad purposes and almost always will be. That is not the technologies fault that is the fault of those who would use it for evil.

    You name almost any technological advance and you will find someone misusing it. The movable type printing press is probably the greatest invention in the last 1,000 years (I know many will disagree) and yet it was used to start wars and persecutions. Another way of saying this is that guns don’t kill people but that people kill people.

    Responsibility for misuse lies with the people who do it. In this country if the government misuses it, it is all American’s fault since our representatives have allowed it to happen. We as a nation need to take responsibility for what happens (including electing our representatives) and quit blaming other people or things for what goes wrong.

  10. Just to clarify: I am not suggesting that the GPS takes away freedom. I am not arguing that technology, per se, is bad. I am arguing that some technologies induce a proclivity to obey. The cumulative effect of technologies of this sort will create habits of mind that are inimical to freedom. As such, we should reflect carefully on particular technologies and not simply embrace them all with a “technology is neutral and can be used well or misused.”

    Brett,
    I’m not at all convinced that children are the most creative of people. Many children are creative but so are many adults. And I am talking about adults who are no longer under the tutelage of parents. Children are, I think, a special case.

    Furthermore, I think the events that night in Miami count as a fight. But still, I would argue that the possibility of getting lost is something that is good (despite the less than happy consequences described so well by Flannery O’Connor in her unforgettable story http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~surette/goodman.html) and that fighting is simply a part of human relations (see Item the Fifth https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=3329).

  11. Mark,
    I wonder if the issue is really freedom – or, if so, only after some clarification. After all, you are no less “obeying” the demands of a route when using a map, or following a terrain, just as you are also obeying when you plant according to season, or sleep at night, etc.

    The GPS is, to my mind, nefarious for another reason: it is indispensable because we can no longer rely on “local knowledge.” Its widespread presence – even necessity – reflects the fact that many, even most of us use our automobiles to be in places where we are essentially lost. One thing I’ve enjoyed about being back in Princeton this year was the storehouse of unforgotten knowledge of best routes that I’d learned from living there over the years. These are NEVER the routes that a GPS will lead you to – the device will always send you either on the most “direct” (and often very bad) route, or the one with the biggest roadways. The GPS is yet another sign of our ignorance that gives us the illusion of control.

    That said, since time immemorial humans have traveled and have gotten lost, and in this light, this technology has one other lamentable consequence: it tends to eliminate the surprising, serendipitous and rewarding detour that can occur upon getting lost. Among other things, it all but completely eliminates the need to talk with other human beings, and maybe learn something about a better backroad route that will take you by a great farm stand where local honey or jams can be bought, as well as sometimes remarkable conversations that can be struck up with just the opening line, “how do I get to…?”. If I may use an analogy by way of comparison, the GPS does to travel what the internet database has done to library scavenges. Yes, it used to take a lot more time to find books and articles when you had to prowl the stacks, and I can’t say I altogether miss the experience of photocopying endless piles of articles. That said, what is increasingly lost is the serendipitous discovery of books or articles that may be nearby one’s object, or even just lying along the way to your destination. I can’t begin to enumerate the great books I’ve read as a result of those serendipitous discoveries, and I worry that this and future generations of students will be deprived of that mysterious wonder. To the extent the GPS keeps us in our cars, listening only to a mechanical (if feminine) voice, we lose that magic of the accidental possibility.

    And – to the extent that we are further “driven” by demands of efficiency at the expense of potential human community (or passing acquaintance) – perhaps it is, after all, our liberty we are losing, if we understand liberty to involve our capacity to resist the logic and imperative of efficiency. We lose the liberty to get lost, to double back, to be late, to take what may come, and live by standards that are God-given and natural, not technical and scientific.

  12. a year and a half ago, i wanted to buy my mom a gps for christmas. my dad (in his typical resistance to new things) said she probably would not use it. well, upon my recent trip to LA to meet my parents for my brother’s graduation, i found out that not only had my mom bought a gps herself, my dad loved the new device.

    something happened though, on the trips around the city, my dad still would get directions anyhow. these directions would often cause him to second guess the device. the trips became even more frustrating as a new battle emerged between my dad and the gps (sometimes, neither won and we ended up lost AND late).

    there are times when new information and technology just make the world seem more complex. and gps devices are only really helpful if you are able to understand why they might be more trustworthy (or not) than directions from the fellow at the 7-11.

  13. Actually Peters, recon by stars is a prosaic activity long replaced by navigating by shopping center as in: “The third turn after the second Walmart past the third Taco Bell.”. Not to pull moral rank on you but but a man of your capabilities at distillation should know these things.
    Yours in perfidy,
    D.W. Sabin
    Prophet, Seer and Revelator

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