New York Times Op-Ed page, December 14, 2005

Get Lost

LIKE many American males, I tend to be pro-gadget. I like my cellphone (Motorola Razr) and Bluetooth headset, my iPod (third generation, 15 gigabytes), my Palm device (cool thing with a full keyboard called a Dana). I scan for the latest versions of computer software and adopt them readily. But despite a barrage of pre-Christmas entreaties by advertisers, what I do not want is a portable global positioning system.

My wife, Margot, feels differently: of all the gadgets in the world, a G.P.S. is the one that most interests her. She wants a G.P.S. – or even better, a built-in navigation system for our car – because, as she explains it, she “lacks the map gene.” And the New York metropolitan area is an easy place to make a wrong turn.

But built-in “nav systems” are costly, so we decided to look instead for a portable G.P.S. So far we have tested and rejected five of them. Two we deemed unintuitive and too hard to use. One kept losing satellite signals. All made significant mistakes (most memorably, a recommended U-turn in the middle of I-91 south of Hartford). We keep trying new ones – they seem to be getting better – but so far none has proved more skillful at navigating than I am (or think I am) with a map.

I am prepared to admit that I may also harbor a built-in bias against this particular gizmo. The problem, to me, is that navigation by G.P.S. changes the nature of car travel: it makes it seem all about numbers (distance to destination, time to destination) when I’m trying to preserve a sense that travel is also about something else.

Remember this? ” ‘Whooee!’ yelled Dean. ‘Here we go!’ And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.”

I wasn’t even born when Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” was published in 1957. When Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, and his friend, Dean Moriarty, headed west from his aunt’s place in Paterson, N.J., Eisenhower’s plan for an Interstate highway system hadn’t even passed Congress. (Next year, by the way, will be its 50th anniversary.) Cars didn’t have seat belts or headrests – or anything more electronic than a push-button AM radio. Gas was pretty cheap. And though they landed for a while in my hometown, Denver, what Kerouac’s heroes sought wasn’t a set of coordinates on the map. Rather, as when they passed into Mexico, they wanted not to know where they were going. (“We were longing to rush right up there and get lost in those mysterious Spanish streets.”)

My first book was about riding freight trains with those Kerouackian heroes, hoboes. Repeatedly, when traveling this way, I had no exact idea of where I was: freights go places you neither expect nor recognize, and railyards often lack signs. One night, a train I had hopped in St. Louis at dusk stopped and left my boxcar on the edge of a town many hours later. When I woke up the next day, it was the first morning of my conscious life that I had no certain knowledge of even what state I was in.

Getting lost now has a bad name: we all know what happened to Sherman McCoy when Tom Wolfe sent him up the wrong highway ramp in the Bronx at the start of “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Hertz calls its onboard G.P.S. system Hertz Neverlost. Often when we get lost we, horror of horrors, lose time.

I first became attentive to maps on long-distance bike tours, where a missed turn costs you not just gas but your own energy. After high school, I rode coast-to-coast across North America – west to east, to take advantage of prevailing winds. But the wind seldom blows exactly east, and a couple of weeks into the trip I thought of an even better bicycle odyssey: start somewhere around the Rockies and, each day, take the road that best allows me to keep the wind at my back. Granted, this is not a practical strategy for the daily commute. Unlike most Beat poets, I now have a family and many commitments. I am happy about our car’s airbags and side-impact door beams and stereo sound system and generally not too unhappy to be reachable via cellphone. An in-car DVD player for long trips wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I will readily take the Interstate if it will let me drive faster.

But the G.P.S, which makes a driver focus on the when and how of arrival, strikes me as the electronic equivalent of the child in the back seat querulously asking, “Are we there yet?” The more you think about those miles, the slower they tick by. I want to muse upon things other than numbers when I drive, want to cultivate a subconscious sense of where I am and where I’m headed, want to enjoy unmeasured moments of suspension between here and there.

Exact distance to next turn, next “services,” next “points of interest?” I’m hoping that Margot will hold off a little bit longer.

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  1. John says:

    This may be a super long comment, but this article vaguely reminded me of something I wrote recently, trying to articulate some of my own reluctance to blindly get on board the revolution of “progress”.

    In other parts of the world there is no five day forecast, and living in South America for four years, I had gotten used to that. Now I live in the US again, and it seems like since I last checked, the weatherman has gotten pretty good. With surprising accuracy we talk about weather in future tense and can decide in advance when to go to the beach and when to go to the movies; and there’s something about that that I don’t like.
    Sure, it’s convenient and intelligent, but so is Tivo and GPS and Facebook, but I don’t like any of those either. In the end these are all just opinions, but life should be simple and natural and focused. There are a lot of remarkable things happening right now, but it seems a lot of these innovations just over-saturate the surface, and drown everything else out in white noise. There is something I really like about waking up each morning, and without knowing what that day’s high temperature will be, going outside and going on with my life.

    Most of these new advances seem designed to either better control our time or to facilitate easier communication, and taken singularly it’s hard to see how that can be anything but positive, but this has quickly become a drug we have overdosed on. Our laptop or our iPhone or so many other things can now tell us when it will be nice outside, but the ironic reality is that these new innovations are keeping us inside more and more. Life is what happens when your updating your status message. Maybe its time we take a step back and turn everything off long enough to hear ourselves think.

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