Humanity is Failing to Find The Way.

27 02 2010

Posted on http://bostinnovation.com on 19th February, 2010 . Reproduced with their very kind permission.

I thought the instruction was simple: Harvard Square to the corner of Chauncy and Boylston.

I knew I could get there on the T, but I was late and decided not to rely on the mood-swings of the subway. Instead, I opted to use one of the 1,825 licensed Boston cabs.

I was even confident that, despite having only moved here 7 months ago from the U.K., the quickest way to go was Mass Ave. to Boylston and then stop just short of Chinatown.

The driver stopped talking loudly on his cell phone long enough to punch in the address and then did a u-turn and headed towards Soldiers Field and Storrow Drive. When we drove past Fenway I started to get vaguely irritated.

That was the route that his GPS recommended.

The Global Positioning System market has exploded in the last few years with a baffling array of products to choose from. Go into Radio Shack and they can offer you any one of 125 small boxes that can take away the pressure of actually knowing where to go whilst a disembodied voice tells you to turn left, right or drive through buildings to get to your destination.

One in five drivers in the U.S.A. now relies on GPS to get from A to B and occasionally C, and predicted sales for Personal Navigation Devices (PND) are expected to be 19 million in 2010. Every cab in Boston is expected to have a GPS installed by the end of February and 70% of mobile phones also have the technology as standard, including the bafflingly popular iPhone.

I have it installed in my G1. I have used it twice in 4 months and both times it was to win an argument about how long it would take to walk to New York from Boston non-stop (2 days, 20 hours via I-95).

The true Luddite in me hates GPS’ and PND’s. I find them to be annoying and the directions given are even more confusing when you are trying to concentrate on not being rear-ended by other drivers relying on their TomTom’s.

However, I will begrudgingly concede that the GPS system originally installed by the U.S. Department of Defense does have its uses.

Installed on the dashboard of the car, GPS is almost acceptable — the system is governed by 24 satellites hovering above us in our atmosphere, and as such, once it is locked on to at least three, the chances of getting lost are slim. Not quite so much fun if you are relying on a mobile phone for directions and you lose the signal in a less densely populated area. That is when the arguments normally start in my car, as my wife tells me to get a map and I mock her reliance on technology.

GPS works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world and 24 hours per day. (Theoretically.) Hikers and those insane individuals who enjoy tramping through uninhabited wilderness would be foolish to leave home without a PND. The technology involved is fascinating and involves a set of calculations regarding triangulation, 2D latitude and longitude and some other scientific concepts which just confuse me.

It is accurate to within about fifteen meters (about 45 feet), and a new generation of receivers using Wide Area Augmentation System (WASS) will reduce that to three meters (about 9 feet). Properly programmed, a GPS can advise of traffic problems and congestion, point out places of interest, and monitor your trip progress.

My major gripe is that GPS’ are being used by individuals whose job it should be to know where they are going without having to use a piece of technology. In other words, taxi drivers who rely on the technology kill me.

In my hometown of London, the licensed cabs are driven by men and women who have taken an average of four years to learn their way around the 25,000 streets that exist within a six mile radius of Charing Cross train station. Plus, there’s a hierarchy. They are only allowed to operate a black cab after they have demonstrated “the knowledge” which is the ability on request to find the quickest route from A to B. They do not use GPS for this. And they will point out places of interest along the way, so you’re less likely to be forced to deal with loud radio stations you’d never listen to of your own accord and absurd phone conversations between the driver and his mother.

Black cab drivers use accumulated knowledge and experience. They rely on their own spatial awareness to ensure that the passenger is delivered to his destination in the shortest time.

And that is the main problem with our reliance on the Global Positioning System.

By relying on a network of machines in the sky and whichever one of the units that we have been sold, we are losing the ability to actually navigate ourselves. We need to be told where to go. We need to have our hands held to function adequately.

On the plus side, an emotionless machine has no interest in directing us the wrong way (to hike up fares) or over a cliff.

Or am I just being paranoid?

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