April 24, 2013

The Road Not Taken

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My parents have been happily married for over two decades. But over the past few years, another woman has entered the picture. My father trusts her more than the other women in his life, and puts more confidence in her than he puts in himself.  I’ve had a beef with her ever since my dad picked her up at Costco, and I constantly beg him to stop turning her on.

Pandemonium erupts whenever she’s around my family, especially when she utters the dreaded “r” word: “recalculating.” Her name is Samantha, and she’s the American-English voice setting of my family’s Garmin in-car GPS system.

Okay, “Samantha” isn’t a real person, and my parents have a great marriage. But the fact still remains that my family’s Garmin in-car GPS system is the source of tension on family road trips and everyday drives in my hometown. When an unfamiliar road sign points in one direction and “Samantha” has a different opinion, she ultimately wins.

Even though my dad has been driving for decades, he still feels the need to take “Samantha” for the ride, just to see if she can offer a better or quicker route. Often she just leads to unnecessary frustration, taking him on a road with a toll, a lot of traffic, or, as is unfortunately a common occurrence in Canada, inches of unplowed snow. If he had just followed his own knowledge and intuition, he would have avoided the inconveniences.

I often joke with my dad that he should get a restraining order against “Samantha” for all the times she suggests taking U-turns at dangerous intersections and “loses satellite reception” mid-voyage. What a tease. I ask him why he trusts her so much when he has driven for so many years without her help. “She’s a machine, so she knows better,” he tells me.

But since I’ve been studying abroad, I’ve realized that I must be my father’s daughter — and that I’m also a huge hypocrite. People say you learn new things when you’re abroad, and I’ve learned that I have amongst the worst wayfinding skills known to mankind (in my defense, Paris is shaped like a spider web).

In my nearly four months here, I still can’t figure out how to get to places where I’ve been many times before without the help of Google Maps on my phone. I used to make fun of my parents for calling their GPS system “Samantha,” but here, I tell people that I’m hopeless without “my little blue dot.” Yes, I officially personify pixels with possessive pronouns.

Even though my abroad program provided everyone with a detailed pocket map of Paris, I haven’t brought it with me since I discovered how cheap data plans are in France. Instead, I stare at “my little blue dot” so much when exploring new areas of the city that I don’t absorb the vibe of the people and architecture around me. My eyes are fixated on my smartphone screen as the Eiffel Tower passes in the skyline and chic Parisians look flawless sipping espressos on terraces.

Do I really have hopeless wayfinding skills or am I just not giving myself ample opportunity to develop them? Will my dad progressively lose his established capacities as he increasingly relies on “Samantha”?

The more I reflect on how the people around me and I use GPS systems, the more I freak out about our collective self-doubting of our skills. Sure, it’s nice to have “Samantha” or “my little blue dot” as a backup, but maybe we should take risks to gain more trust and confidence in ourselves.

The technological philosopher Albert Borgmann wrote in the 1980s, “If we are to challenge the rule of technology, we can only do so through the practice of engagement.” So, if I face two diverging roads –– whether they are in a yellow wood or in the center of Paris –– I’ll start by taking the one less traveled by. And if it’s not the correct path, I’ll take the other one, just as fair. Maybe that will make all the difference.

Original Author: Susie Forbath