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Using technology, like a GPS device, comes with a cost to our humanity

Every time my cell phone provides directions for me, I feel both grateful and uneasy. I appreciate the GPS help, especially at night in a strange town. But I worry about losing some of my independence and self-assurance.

I’m old enough to remember the time when I needed to use a paper map, usually provided by the American Automobile Association, to plan my route. I became pretty good at map reading, a skill I first developed when I was in the Boy Scouts.

Now I seldom use a paper map, though there are times I’ve realized I should have. Global Positioning Systems are not foolproof, and I remember experiences when a robot voice on my phone gave me the wrong directions.

For a while, I thought my uneasiness with following GPS directions was a weird eccentricity and I was becoming a grumpy old man. Then I read something that told me my feeling of discomfort was legitimate.

“To the extent that technology strips away the need for skill it strips away the possibility of meaning as well.” This idea was expressed in a book co-written by two philosophy professors, Cal Berkeley’s Hubert Dreyfus and Harvard’s Sean Dorrance Kelly.

Further on in their book, “All Things Shining,” the professors added, “To navigate by GPS is to endure a series of meaningless pauses at the end of which you do precisely what you are told. There is something dehumanizing about this.”

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John Spevak, columnist for The Enterprise Enterprise file

After reading this I realized I wasn’t crazy after all. The authors had affirmed something I had felt intuitively — that advances in technology come with significant human costs.

I’m not crazy enough, however, to deny that technological developments increase convenience. Not long ago while visiting my son’s family, my daughter-in-law asked me what piece of music I’d like to hear. I said, “Chopin’s Nocturne #1.” Within seconds I was hearing that nocturne played in a digital recording activated by Alberta or Ceres (or some other robot lady with a similar name).

Each day I’m persuaded, encouraged, even exhorted to speak into some voice-activated device — a phone, a television remote, a glowing cylinder. Usually I choose not to. To me there’s something silly about talking to a robot. Even when I’m seeking driving directions on my cell phone, I type in my destination rather than saying it.

I’m sure some of this is stubbornness. And some of it is just wishing life were simpler again, probably in the same way my grandparents thought life would be simpler without a telephone.

But some of it is legitimate concern. Looking into the future, I see driverless cars, automated big-rig trucks, computers taking orders at fast food places. There seems to be almost infinite array of artificial intelligence examples ahead becoming part of our lives, presented as advances making life easier. However, these advances will come at steeper and steeper human costs — fewer jobs and fewer opportunities to use our minds to figure things out.

I think back to the days when I used a paper map. I would unfold it on my kitchen table, find my starting point and select my destination. Then I would plot out the best route, considering both mileage and time. I would take out a highlighter and mark my map clearly, which I would follow later, ideally with another person next to me navigating. When I arrived at my destination, I felt sense of accomplishment.

When I was in grade school, I pursued a Boy Scout merit badge in map reading and learned many cartographical symbols. I was quite proud of myself as a kid for mastering map-reading techniques.

Many years later, as a parent, I felt similar pride in watching my children develop the skill of map reading. On long drives from California to Chicago, they would use maps to correctly identify the next town ahead and identify the best way to reach it.

They would also tell their mom and dad how long it would take us to arrive at our final destination that night, when we could spill out of a car and into a Motel 6. (We were a frugal as well as a self-determined family.)

Today, with GPS guidance from a voice on my phone, I arrive at my destination with a sense of relief, not accomplishment. My phone got me to my destination, not me. I had little to do with process or the outcome, other than typing in the correct destination address.

I realize advances in technology will continue, and I can anticipate many positive outcomes. But I still worry about the future, especially for my grandchildren. I hope they find ways as adults to use technological developments to better their lives and the lives of others without losing their sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

John Spevak wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email: john.spevak@gmail.com.
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