When I think back to the days before Siri, my mind lands on that time when my 18-year-old self drove from the East Bay down to Gilroy, California (a city 1.5 hours south), on a journey to retrieve a bag I’d left in my date’s car the previous night.
I’d printed out Map Quest directions beforehand, and looking down at them while driving proved difficult and stressful.
After getting lost— either missing my exit or merging onto the wrong freeway (I can’t remember which)— I ended up stopping at three different gas stations, as well as a Chuck E. Cheese in Hayward, in pursuit of directional assistance.
Ultimately I found my way back to the freeway through the help of a good Samaritan, who directed me after I made the (perhaps questionable?) decision to let him into my car.
Did my struggles that day speak to the difficulties of driving GPS-free? Did they point to a dire need for an electronic navigational system, for hapless drivers like me? I wonder now. Or was I just more naive and directionally challenged than your average person (honestly, probably a mix of both)?
What I do know is that when GPS came along, it removed a significant amount of driving related stress.
I wondered though, as I drove Lyft one day, whether we are possibly becoming too dependent on it— and whether that dependence has opened up a whole Pandora’s box of other stresses.
One time a cop, who’d pulled me over for making an apparently illegal left turn, asked me why I’d done it. I responded, truthfully, that a) I hadn’t seen the prohibitive sign, and b) that my GPS had instructed me to.
His response to this, in a mocking tone: “Oh, so you did it just because your GPS told you to?”
At first I felt resistant to his criticism. Weren’t GPS’ invented to free up some cognitive space inside our busy heads? Did he expect me to focus on both the energetically demanding task of driving AND that of integrating conflicting messages in a matter of seconds (so as to decide on a spur of the moment course of action)?
Though rude in his delivery of it (I also wonder if he himself would have followed his own advice were he in the same situation, confronted with making a split-second decision) he did have a point. Truth lay at the bottom line of his message: Don’t let over-reliance on technology compromise your attunement with your surroundings and overall common sense.
**Autocorrect might be in on the plan to disconnect us from our inner compasses. It always tries to change GPS to God whenever I type it into my phone. Dangerous implication there, Autocorrect.
In his book There There, author Tommy Orange writes: “I depend on the internet for recall now. There’s no reason to remember when it’s always just right there, like the way everyone used to know phone numbers by heart and now can’t even remember their own. Remembering itself is becoming old-fashioned.”
My question in response to this: Is Siri always “right there” though? What about when service is down? Or when she (seemingly at random) decides to clock out and stop speaking?
One time I was driving a passenger back to their house in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. Shortly after directing me to the 805 North, Siri at some point stopped talking. Two Adele songs had played before I realized this though (which I did only after looking down at my phone and seeing I had missed our exit).
I pictured Siri in human form in that moment, smoking a blunt and lulled to sleep by Adele’s at once powerful and soporific vocals.
Or what if we were to ever experience a power outage? Like any machine, Siri is fallible. She’ll ghost (which is scary and can trigger abandonment issues, especially when you’re in an unfamiliar area surrounded by so many quickly moving vehicles and little idea of where you’re going).
Overwhelmed by people’s un-ending needs and constant demands, she’ll burn out and shut down (it could be argued, by friends of hers in the service device community, that like the rest of us she too needs “me time” to recharge).
She’ll…well, rather than continue down this path of projection and personification, I’ll just say she can be unreliable at times. We can leave it at that.
Some scientists fear that over-dependence on Siri-like technology will shrink our hippocampus. As Jennifer Ackerman wrote in her book The Genius of Birds: “If our human navigational efforts shape our hippocampus, what happens when we stop using it for this purpose—when we lean too hard on technology such as GPS, which makes navigation a brain-free endeavor?”
She also noted that people who made a habit of navigating on their own “had more grey matter in the hippocampus and showed overall less cognitive impairment than those who relied on GPS.”
It’s for these reasons that I’ve begun to reexamine my attachment to Siri.
Even though I myself struggled with it, there was a time when we were able to get ourselves from one place to another without her help. I’m confident that we still possess those skills, however atrophied or dimmed the neural connections that underpin them may have become.
Plus maybe back then I was just young. Maybe I struggled because I was a new driver. Maybe these days, if I really set my mind to it, I could do it.
Could it be healthy to drive Siri-free from time to time, if only to reclaim our grey matter and prevent our dependence from rendering us helpless?
Perhaps. Personally though, I feel too apprehensive to try. I think I’ll continue to depend on her for as long as I can. Maybe one of these days I’ll be ready to start with some baby steps.
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