If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Satnavs and maps

I hope nothing in the previous post gave the impression that I don't like maps, or that I am one of those muppets who relies too heavily on a shiny new satnav and ends up in a field. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I love maps, with a love that passeth understanding. I could look at them for hours, and frequently do. One of the joys of doing A-level Geography was being able to sit at the back of the room with Phillips' School Atlas on the desk in front of me and just do a world tour in between Maths and lunch. Bombhead chuntering on about the industries of the Rhine at the front of the room, and there I was piloting a steamer round the coast of Novaya Zemlya, or crossing the Nullarbor Plain on an ancient BSA. I'm sure that my fascination with place-names and my itchy feet were conceived at the back of a Geog class somewhere. I once read that a good map contains more information per square centimetre than the entire space programme, or something. I'm sure it's true. I love maps, and feel about as bad writing on them as I would about scribbling in the margin of a novel - i.e. very bad indeed.

But a satellite navigator, well, that's something else. The fact that I can hold in my hand something which receives signals from satellites in orbit above the earth and, using the vanishingly small differences in the time signals from several of them, can calculate my position on the earth's surface to within a few yards, is a source of complete amazement to me. And that's only the GPS part. For the same device to have every significant road, path and track in Western Europe in its memory, and to be able to calculate the best/quickest/shortest route between any two points in a matter of seconds is just wonderful. And then to read the route out to you, step by step, and even draw you a map that changes as you move - well, it's almost sorcery. And it's only as big as a packet of fags. I mean, how clever is that?

(Anna and I were in Italy a couple of years ago, in the wine country just South of Florence. One day, tiring of the main road loop to get us to the village we used for shopping, we just set the village name into 'Jane' and asked for the shortest route. We were taken through farms and down unpaved lanes - places where, without the satnav, we would have backed out of long before. But it got us there. We were on a tiny road between fields, miles from anywhere, and came across a track - no, a path - which crossed our route. A dusty, white path about six feet wide, with no signs of recent use by foot or car. And I looked on the satnav and there it was. And I thought this thing knows.)

The problem with satnav is the same as with any technology. Brilliant in the hands of experts, when the price comes down and less - how shall I say? - competent people get their hands on it, it is almost too good at what it does. A decent satnav will navigate so well that it is very tempting to leave all the decisions up to the unit, and abrogate all responsibility for your journey to a chunk of silicon. So the average Joe gets his £99 satnav and sets off, marvelling at its efficiency and sheer cleverness, and he leaves his common sense at home. And when it tells him to go down a road which is clearly unsuitable, he does as he is told and ends up in The Sun with his Rover up to its windows in a lake, or hanging off the edge of a cliff. Note to Average Joe: Technology isn't perfect. It's just there to help.

There is a kind of de-skilling going on in the modern world which is very worrying, and satnavs are part of it. People don't know how to cook any more, or light a real fire in a grate, or do complex mental arithmetic, or read a map and use a compass. Why would they? It's all done for us now. And when there's too much snow to get to Tesco, or there's a power cut, or the calculator battery runs out, or the satnav freezes, we're stuffed. We literally don't know what to do any more.

Satnavs are 99% brilliant and 1% stupid. If you understand this, and use them accordingly, they are completely wonderful pieces of kit. I feel much safer finding my way in an unfamiliar city with 'Jane' telling me where and when to turn, with my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road, than if had to keep consulting a street map on the passenger seat every 50 yards. And they make long journeys much more relaxing, with warnings of motorway junctions in good time, and something that tells you how far you have to go and an estimated time to get there (not to mention the bing! that tells you when a speed camera is coming up).

But you can't sit on the loo and dream with a satnav.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment is free, according to C P Scott, so go for it. Word verification is turned off for the time being. Play nicely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...