Running on empty

Three cities. Eight cab rides. Eight cab drivers that relied solely and completely on their GPS to find my destination. In five out of the eight cases, if I had not come prepared with a printed Mapquest map and detailed directions, I would still be circling the Atlanta suburbs or be hopelessly lost in downtown Bellevue. In three of the eight cases my destination was the airport. The airport, people! You know, the place where all the planes take off and land every day. The place that, if you look at the road signs instead of the computer on your dashboard, is clearly and helpfully designated by the image of a plane on the highway sign. The place that, one would think, is surely the most common destination for any cab driver.

On the plus side, using the GPS makes cab drivers more money, because even if it isn’t automatically set to default to the longest route, there will be ample re-routing along the way due to dead-ends, road closures (that flashing neon sign must just be a mistake) and one-way streets going the wrong way. The lack of direction issue unfortunately extends far beyond the confines of the cab to the dispatchers. When I called to inquire where I should be waiting for an airport pickup, given the fact that a three foot high concrete barrier separated my location from the road, there was a black hole of silence.

I am sure that map reading is the next thing on the endangered skill list (right in front of telling time on an analog watch and immediately behind memorizing telephone numbers). This is all fine and dandy while we have electronic devices to tell us which direction is north or south (except of course when they literally do not know which end is up), but what about in the zombie apocalypse? Which road goes out of town? Bribes being accepted (hard currency only) via Kickstarter if you want a spot on my team.

Apparently the posterior hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, is much larger in London cab drivers than for the rest of the population. That’s because before they can put their shingle out on the road they spend on average four years memorizing every nook, cranny and obscure landmark of London in addition to all the streets, roads and avenues it contains. But even London cabbies, long a respected profession, are under siege by lesser services, like ‘mini cabs’ that are exempt from the rigorous geographical testing process. And Uber has also joined the fray. Hang on to your hippocampus, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The problem with electronic devices is of course they are only as good as the human(s) who programmed and populated them. Ever since 1950 when Mr. Turing asked whether or not machines could think we’ve been trying to make it so or at least trying to prove it so. Next thing you know we’ll start believing everything we read on the internet. Oh. Right. Never mind.

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