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Me and my GPS
by Tony Kahn

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I admit it. I have a lousy sense of direction. So lousy it may mean I really do know where I am, but given a choice, I always pick the wrong turn.

Gretchen: "Oh, oh. U-turn."

I think it comes from moving so much as a kid. Every time we settled somewhere for longer than two seconds, it seemed, we had to move. I kind of grew up never really sure where I was. So, when I finally got a car with a GPS in it, I felt my life was about to change. The bright LCD screen showed me where I was at five different levels of magnification, from the big picture of five contiguous states, to the street level of five contiguous blocks.

"Great," my friends, scoffed, "so now you can watch yourself drive right off a cliff or into a lake." But the GPS had a voice! Sort of middle-European, with an even-tempered tone totally un-roughened by road-rage. She could tell me of every upcoming twist and turn without my ever taking my eyes off the road. Packed with geographic omniscience from a CD-ROM in the trunk, she could drive me through the valley of confusion with a velvet lash. I called her Gretchen.

I'm a lot happier with Gretchen beside me on the road, especially here in LA. But my sense of direction? It's never been worse. It's not her fault. She's just a new technology and new technologies develop relationships with consumers that engineers never dream of. Like the answering machine, designed to help us stay in touch with people when we're out, most of us use it to stay out of touch with people when we're in. Or the VCR, designed to tape TV shows, it damn near wiped TV out as the main playback machine for rented movies. It turns out I use Gretchen not to tell me where we are, but where we're not. When I zoom all the way out, to bird's eye view, I can see how near I am to a lake or state park I never noticed before. At street view, I can now read road signs at night of all the streets I never saw before, all the way up to my destination and beyond!

Gretchen: "Make a U-turn if possible."

She'll protest, but always sweetly. I mean, does this sound like someone who really cares?

Gretchen: "Make a U-turn if possible."

It's one of the things I like about her. You see, for all her programming, I think Gretchen has a traveler's soul. It's the journey that counts, not the destination. Thanks to Gretchen, I can now get more lost than ever.

Gretchen: "Make a U-turn if possible."

No, Gretchen, I can't. And I won't.


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