Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Now With Fewer Buttons

It seems that everyone and her sister has or wants a GPS now. In one of the recent Sunday flyers, one store advertised no fewer than 6 versions, hoping that we'd all come in and buy one.

This, I really do not get. Why do we need these things? I know some people are directionally challenged. Years ago, one friend had one installed in her car to keep herself from going perpetually astray. It seemed to be a good solid piece of equipment. Most of us, however, can usually figure out how to get where we are going. So we don't *really* need one of these. Do we?

In addition, these days, we have umpteen versions to add to the one we don't really need. It's become the gadget of the era. Unfortunately, all the gadgets of the world cannot save some people from their confusion. Not naming any names, here, but some people put in some kind of information and get out, well, garbage. They are surprised, yes, surprised! when the GPS tells them to make a circle if they put in the wrong address.

It's not a magic machine. I suspect that all the buttons and functions have become overwhelmingly redundant, so that it takes just as much brain power (or more) to get the thing to work correctly as it would be to just figure out where you are going. But nooo, we apparently want (or think we want) all the features. It's like a cheap stereo, cell phone, or Mp3 player - covered in buttons and glitz with just as much (or less) practicality than a simple version. It's like (still not naming any names) buying yet another new cell phone because you can't figure out the old ones. The newest version is not necessarily going to help you figure it out any more easily.

Do they even make a simple version of the GPS any more? (I am writing rhetorically because I don't feel like taking my time to actually research this question.) I know they do make a simple version of a cell phone because we have one! (It makes phone calls and can receive text messages; that's it.) So maybe a basic GPS exists as well. I do know that most of the backpacking versions with elevation and land feature mapping are only good until a change in the weather after which you have to recalibrate the things all over again before you know where you are.

Why yes, they do make a simple version of a GPS, still. It's called a map. Map skills are good for life. We look at the maps and plot our path. Maybe we'll print something from maps on the web and actually *gasp* outline our route in highlighter pen.

My husband's version of a GPS is even simpler. I ride with him. He calls me "the system." The system says things like "This lane will end in half a mile" or "Don't turn left, turn right" or sometimes "Turn around! You missed your turn!" My husband thinks this is magic because he is sometimes directionally dyslexic, wanting to turn right when he's turned left hundreds of times.

If the system is on high alert, it'll say things like "You're following that guy a little closely" or "Watch out for that car!" Sometimes the system has to be dialed down a little so it doesn't say things like "The speed limit is now * 35 miles * per hour (and you're going 50)." But it does come in handy to alert for "Deer!" and "Cop car!"

Also, the system is wary of creating an unhealthy dependancy. The system is not above staying silent to allow for user learning. However it does come in handy. And it does not require onboard electronics.

I grant you this does not address the coolness factor of having an electronic toy with buttons and graphics. This also does not address people who travel for business and for whom having an onboard computer is actually a beneficial tool. Know know those UPS scanner computer they carry around? Coolness. But for the average person? Pffft!

When we are GPSed up to here, are we as a society going to lose our ability to plot our path across town? When we have this gadget to tell us the "best" route and where to turn, do we give up our ability to evaluate our choices and make spatial decisions? Our brains continually "map" our spatial environment and conceptual connections. If we don't use our brains, those connections atrophy. Use it or lose it, baby.

This system would say it's nice to have a reference, but it's not necessary to have someone hold your hand. So put down the GPS. You can figure out where you are, okay? It's all hardwired in your brain already. No buttons required.

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