It seems that while I was navigating my way around subway systems abroad, a GPS service became de rigueur back in the US of A. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
See, I’m kind of a map fiend. I love maps. Love them. I don’t care if the map is of a place I’ve never been, or don’t particularly want to visit. I don’t even care if they’re accurate or not. Some of my favorite maps ever are the ones from the 18th and 19th centuries. Apparently the continents looked different back then. Nothing pains me more than throwing away a perfectly good map, as my better half will attest. He’s learning to live with all sorts of clutter.
The thing is, though, I’m really good at reading a maps. I think that being able to intuitively feel which way is north is a very important lifeskill, one that everyone should acquire if at all possible. Couple this instinct with a decent map, and you’ll never be lost for long. Even the time you spend a bit turned around is time well spent, as it helps fix those streets, landmarks, what have you, in their relative position in your mental map of a city.
I digress. GPS services. I kind of hate them, and even though I do recognize their usefulness in some situations, like figuring out how the heck to get on the West Seattle Bridge from downtown since they closed the Spokane Street onramp and neglected to change the signs, I confess to (often) talking back to the woman with the grating voice and to thinking myself wiser than she. My major objection to most GPS services is their assumption that I will just blindly, with complete disregard for the bigger picture, follow their commands as to what I ought to do next. It reminds me of my prenatal care experience in China.
There are lots of babies born in China every day. This means there are lots of pregnant women, which in turn means that even hospitals that specialize in prenatal care and birth are very crowded places. The administration of these hospitals deals with the issue by instituting policies that take expectant mothers through doctors’ visits that vaguely resemble circuit training. You check in with Registration so they know you’re there and are issued some sort of a number that will be important later. Then you go to Area A, take a number, wait your turn, get your blood pressure checked. Go to Area B, take a number, wait your turn, get a little test tube, go down the hallway and give a urine sample. Then you head on over to Area C, or sometimes back to Area A or maybe even up to Area D, to take another number and have some other test done. When you’re done with all your tests for the day, that first number gets you in to see your doctor, who looks at all your results, tells you to eat the blandest food humanly possible, and asks you to teach him two new medical terms in English.
The problem with this very orderly system, as it pertained to me, was that I never knew where I was supposed to go next. My medical Chinese is, um, not very advanced, and I don’t do well in crowds, so these were very stressful occasions for me. I made the mistake once or twice of asking WHY I should go to a certain department. On every occasion, the staff were so flummoxed by this question that they would put down what they were doing and say, “OK. I’ll take you there myself.” I soon realized that I couldn’t possibly beat them. I had to join them. So every visit, I would go to my usual starting point, find the friendliest-looking orderly, hand her my little book and say, “Where do I go now?” Once that task was done, I’d ask the orderly on hand, “OK, where do I go next?” As a coping device, I gave up on the big picture.
By my eighth month of pregnancy, I had finally figured out the routine and had started preparing for each visit by looking up whichever handwritten characters were decipherable in the doctor’s instructions from the previous visit. This way, I was able to map out an approximation of what indignities I’d be subjecting myself to that day. Still, by not insisting on an explanation of the big picture I had wasted tons of time and caused myself more stress that I certainly didn’t need.
My concern here is that GPS, like many other demonstrations of modern technology, is nothing more than a coping device, and that in relying too heavily on it we are giving up our critical thinking skills. Why? is the most powerful and the most important question I know, and the answer to it lies somewhere in between the big picture and the next step.