Why are we still so afraid of technology?

An interesting article in The Conversation, “Yes, GPS apps make you worse at navigating — but that’s OK”, looks at how GPS is steadily reducing our orientation and navigation skills: because we just follow instructions, we don’t bother looking at where we actually are, and when we try to take the same route again without the help of GPS, we make more mistakes and take longer.

The use of GPS has evolved as technology has improved it. We’ve gone from maps stored on our phones to maps that are downloaded from the cloud in real time, and we have gone from simply having the map and an estimate based on distance, to one that includes real-time traffic data and very accurate estimates that incorporate this variable to calculate our arrival time. Most of us now use GPS not only to get to places we’ve never been to, but also to get to and from home and work, sometimes choosing alternative routes depending on traffic, or even entertaining ourselves by competing against the GPS.

Using GPS navigation focuses our attention on interpreting voice instructions or working out where the map is taking us, rather than looking at the landmarks around us. This is addictive technology: next time you’re out and about in a city you don’t know, try finding your way with an old-fashioned street plan: you’ll be reaching for your smartphone within minutes.

Some people will still argue that we should know how to use a map, asking, “what happens if you run out of battery or your smartphone breaks down?” By that logic, we should carry round flints to make fire: we are people, not walking museums, and we tend to look for practicality. Accumulate skills “just in case” one day electricity disappears or a solar flare annihilates all our devices isn’t going to help us get on with our lives.

Is this dependence on electronic devices necessarily bad? We now need to remember fewer phone numbers because we have a phone book in our pockets that simply connects us with the person we want to speak to. Of course, it would be harder to memorize phone numbers if we were forced to do so, just as it would be very difficult for hunters to dispense with shotguns and use a bow and arrow, but the reality is that we have accrued so many more associated benefits, such as the possibility of accessing many more phone numbers than we could humanly remember (equivalent to an increase in the storage capacity of the brain through a prosthetic or supplementary device), in the same way that hunters are more efficient with a technologically improved tool.

Looking to the future, as autonomous vehicles begin to circulate on our roads, we won’t just be outsourcing navigation, but all tasks related to driving. Most trips in the future will be made on machines that take us from one place to another without any intervention on our part, be it public transport or a vehicle that’s part of a fleet of autonomous taxis, meaning we can use our time to do other things such as reading, sleeping or talking to our fellow travelers. How will this affect our space-time consciousness? Will we simply look out of the window or do other things and ignore the landscape between the start and end of our journey? Will we follow the route chosen by the navigation algorithms of the vehicle or will we only look at the estimated arrival time and disconnect from navigation?

Autonomous vehicles are already here. Waymo will launch next month in the United States, the United Kingdom will have autonomous taxis and buses in 2021, Japan in 2020, ready to be showcased at the Olympics, while similar preparations are underway in many other cities around the world. We tend not to think about the impact of technology on our brains until habitual use of it has made an impact doomsayers have begun warning of terrible problems that usually turn out to have no basis. In the case of self-driving cars, the discussion will be influenced by the fact that there will be fewer accidents: when it comes down to it, fewer road deaths is a small price to pay for not paying attention to the route taken by your self-driving car. Even so, the skeptics will warn us about the dangers to our cognitive systems and ponder over whether we will ever be able to find our way around should we need to. I should point out that these will be the same people who said we would never see autonomous vehicles on the roads by 2020.

Do you believe that GPS, like other technologies, has made our lives worse? Or have you stopped being afraid of technology?

(En español, aquí)