When walking down the street have you ever noticed just how many people stride purposefully along with their eyes focused almost exclusively on the small screen of their smart phone held in front of them like some sort of medieval talisman warding off evil spirits? Oblivious to their surroundings they plough through crowds, sometimes straight into trees or lamp posts, as they tap furiously on the phone or check street signs to make sure the computer map is indeed sending them to Portobello Road and not Penzance.
|Is this what we're coming to?|
It remains a mystery just what demands their constant, immediate attention. Remaining in touch with a friend they haven’t seen for at least 10 minutes? Checking their lottery number, finding the magic cure for Brexit, resolving the Syrian mess? Or perhaps they’re anxiously awaiting news on their Oscar nomination or Nobel prize announcement.
While not wanting to appear like some old fogey technophobe I do sometimes wonder how the social value of recent ‘triumphs’ like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram improve our lives compared with the discovery of things like penicillin, polio vaccine, electricity. It’s interesting that in the search for clean energy we’re going back to the very basic wind or geothermal sources. Perhaps one day we’ll even figure out how to harness the tides or develop energy from water.
One innovation that seems to cause as much confusion as enlightenment is satellite navigation or SatNav. How many stories have you heard about people relying on SatNav only to wind up in a remote refuse pit instead of in their friend’s driveway? Once we made the mistake of using SatNav to find a hotel in Normandy and spent hours creeping around back roads before discovering that the hotel was less than a mile from where the device had told us to turn off into the woods.
That experience only reinforced my prejudice for proper maps. Now before any journey I spend very pleasant hours in Stanford’s map/travel shop in central London. There you can find beautiful, multi-coloured, accurate road maps, hiking maps, ordinance survey maps for almost every location in the world – all of which you can study at your leisure without that irritating little voice telling you to turn left in 200 meters, turn right there, and announcing arrogantly that you have arrived at your destination when a glance out the window shows that you are instead far from any known destination. Perhaps SatNav developers should add a phrase like ‘You Can’t Get There From Here.’
These thoughts were wandering through my head as a recent Greek ferry trip took us past the sometimes-turbulent strait between the islands of Evia and Andros. This strait is the most direct route to Troy on the coast of Asia Minor, and I wondered what Odysseus would have done with a Sat Nav for his famous trip home after the long war. Having made the trip to Troy 10 years previously he should have known the direct route home to Ithaca. But the gods, mainly Poseidon, decided to make his life difficult. At least that’s what he ultimately told his long-suffering wife Penelope.
|Think she'll buy the faulty SatNav argument?|
In addition to the issues with Poseidon he decided to add to his problems by relying on the first-generation SatNav. Instead of the simple, direct route the SatNav directed him to zig-zag around the Aegean and Ionian seas for 10 years constantly being told to turn at the next way point or that he had arrived at his destination. I wonder if the system would have warned him about spending several years with Calypso, the risk of the Sirens, the dangers of Polyphemus, or the problems of a reckless crew that opened the bag of winds. After many distractions and useless side trips the little, by now almost completely torn, checkered flag finally appeared at Ithaca. History does not record what the frustrated Odysseus did with the malfunctioning SatNav. But he probably did what most of us often think of doing – grind it underfoot before confronting the wife and son with an already tall tale.
Perhaps now we can blame the trials of early travellers on a faulty SatNav. One can only speculate how travellers like Columbus, Magellan, the Vikings and others would have reacted when their SatNav said it was ‘recalculating’ or that they had ‘arrived at their destination’. They would probably still be floating around the high seas wishing they had relied on tried and tested celestial navigation. At least the stars move in predictable patterns without constantly 'recalculating.'