Opinion

Let's be surprised – don't put so much faith in personal technology

It is the blind and roundabout route that often gives life its richness.

By

Have you noticed? People rarely ask for directions anymore.

I'm at a red light this morning and a guy in the lane to my left toots his horn to get my attention. "Where's the turnpike?" he shouts. I tell him to make a right and follow me to the offramp, a couple of yards out of my way.

As I scoot back across traffic, I happen upon a car with a Kalamazoo sticker in its window. The driver (I can't believe it!) is a former schoolmate. It turns out that she's attending a seminar at the university where I work. I invite her along a lesser-known, circuitous route to the lecture hall and we inadvertently save a couple minutes travel time. We spend them laughing in the parking lot.

I park far from my habitual spot and head across campus to my office. On the way, I stumble upon a cluster of daylilies – undocumented on our botanical map and rumored to be brought here by Rockefeller. I stop to savor the flower and spot a Palm Pilot abandoned in the dirt.

My point is this: If we're all born for a purpose, then our faith in technological omnipotence might mean we'll miss it.

Suppose the guy in the left lane had consulted MapQuest or had Magellan appended to his dash. I'd have missed that unexpected encounter which led to an unforeseen reunion which led to the extraordinary discovery of a cloistered flora which resulted in the heroic recovery of someone's treasured digital assistant.

For better and for worse, we no longer need to rely upon a fixed point in the sky to find our way. Today, Polaris is the thingy that cleans the pool. Global positioning puts us – always – at the center of the universe, and that's not necessarily a good thing. This is the Copernican pickle of our time. It's really hard nowadays to be lost (or found).

"Technology," said Swiss playwright Max Frisch, is "the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it."

There are too few opportunities for incidental adventure in our "SayWhere" world. No one rings the bell anymore. Everything is summoned. Serendipity's song is silenced.

Sadly, I imagine our kids will forever know what's around the corner – and that's a shame, because it is the blind and roundabout route that often gives life its richness and context (how many success stories begin with the bemused "I was in the right place at the right time"?).

Earth-orbiting devices, with their self-referential coordinates and preprogrammed points of interest, restrict our place in the world. Click-and-drag navigation, however precise, cannot match the utility that new and unplanned trajectories of experience offer us.

Scientists predict that a wacky, solar magnetic field reversal in 2012 will wipe out all satellite communications and I wonder how we'll find our way.

The varieties of unexpected encounters await us. We must allow ourselves to be surprised.

Emily Walshe is a librarian and an associate professor at Long Island University in N.Y.

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