V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Get lost. Really.

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, January, 2009.

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- She started getting snarky with me after my fifth wrong turn.

I hadn't noticed it before. She was pleasantly polite at the beginning, helping me negotiate the streets and thoroughfares of a foreign city.

But after having to correct me for the umpteenth time, there was an unmistakable tone of annoyance and exasperation every time my travelling companion was made to say "recalculating," because of my missed turn.

I half expected her to heave a heavy sigh after every "recalculating" I made her utter.

I was in Phoenix covering the American election and had come to rely heavily on a GPS (global positioning system) to navigate efficiently around the city.

But what I soon learned was that I was becoming overdependent on the GPS unit. Unwilling to risk the loss of time, I input my destination into the GPS even when I had made the same trip multiple times before.

Some argue that the GPS is a green gadget -- it saves on gas by providing drivers with the location of the nearest convenience store, gas station or restaurant -- and prevents aimless wandering. A GPS can also provide the shortest route to a destination and save on mileage.

But others charge that digital devices such as the GPS are eroding basic survival and analytical skills, compromising our sense of direction and place. That the wizardry of digital, technological and electronic devices afford convenience but consume unnecessary energy.

Take for instance the electric beater.

Once upon a time, old-fashioned elbow grease was all that was needed to beat egg whites into meringue. Now it requires 220 watts of power. Can openers, pepper grinders and lemon juicers have also gone electric.

"When we develop a crutch for technology, we lose the ability to do that which we did previously," said Bill Steer, director of the National GPS Certification Program in a statement for the Canadian Ecology Centre in northern Ontario.

"Within basic navigation, that's the relationship between the map, the compass and the GPS unit related to time, distance, direction and the exact location. People become more and more reliant, and their expectations get bigger and bigger. And if technology doesn't deliver, we get frustrated."

Indeed, every time Ms. GPS couldn't find my location I would go into a blind panic, cursing the unit with an array of unlady-like expletives, furiously punching at buttons until she would detect me on her satellite system.

Though I've never been adept at charting my course -- I'm hopelessly directionally and spatially challenged -- I've managed to find my way home in the dozens of foreign countries I've visited, thanks to the rudimentary services of a foldout map and, ironically, the ability to get lost.

According to the Canadian Ecology Centre, however, the danger in the GPS is its potential to kill the human impulse to explore and willingly lose our way -- often the best way to see a city.

Getting lost helps develop our sense of place, adds Ken Waller, an IT professor at Nipissing University. But that connection between spaces is decaying with the easy touch of a button and the blind following of a small screen.

Meanwhile, small, rural towns in Britain are being overrun by big rigs directed to narrow, winding roads by navigational systems, often with disastrous results.

Trucks become wedged in between tiny lanes originally designed for horses and carts, reports the New York Times, knocking out power lines, scraping old buildings, and shearing off car mirrors, and even brought one foreign truck driver to tears at his predicament.

Some British communities propose taking certain routes and even their communities off the map altogether.

The lesson I've learned is this: Refrain from buying a device that can talk back but has no feelings.

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