Monday, March 23, 2009

On navigators and perceiving the world

We got a navigator for our car last Christmas. Some time ago I used it for the first time when I had to find to a place in Kirkkonummi. The logic of the navigator takes some getting used to, so of course I took a wrong turn. There is something extremely annoying about a calm male voice telling you to make a U-turn when you a driving on a road where it is not an option. So after a while I found myself screaming back at the navigator as if it were a live person. (Although no real person, and surely no male I know, would have so admirably maintained their calm in that situation.) Silly, I know - it is a machine! But any computer user surely knows that sometimes you just find it helps to vent your feelings by cursing at the dumb machine.

I have been wondering, how things like navigators will change our way of perceiving our surroundings in the long run. Traditionally people have oriented themselves using landmarks, and in most parts of the world this is still the method of finding your way. The obsession with maps is a western thing. For example, if you take a taxi in Amman, you'd better know some handy landmark near the location you're going to, otherwise it might get tricky. The streets do have names, but nobody knows them. And if you show a map to your taxi driver you are just going to make him very confused. Even we westerners don't as a rule need a map to negotiate our daily lives - we know where everything is, through experience. That is the way people normally perceive the world - not as maps or street names, but as places and relationships between them.

What will happen, when we increasingly start to rely on navigators and similar appliances to describe the world for us? Will these useful gadgets actually make us dumber when we need no longer pay attention to our surroundings to orientate? I have already noticed that following the little arrows on the navigator screen and listening to the soothing voice giving you driving instructions means you pay little attention to where you actually are. The perceived world is substituted by the virtual reality of the map on the navigator screen. And even if we don't end up in a situation where we are unable to find our way home from work without our electronic little helpers, I think we are certainly going to miss much when we hand over our perception to these machines.

No comments: