A couple of weeks ago we were driving around Syracuse, NY. We were going from the campus of Syracuse University to Destiny USA, the big (I mean, really BIG) mall close to the New York State Thruway on the north side of the city. (BTW, my reaction to the mall might warrant its own post.)
We plugged our starting location and then the mall’s into the GPS and got the direct route from campus. It took us via the interstate highway. It was certainly the fastest way to go.
Actually, before we started, I was looking at the route and making a mental note of how we could go if we took the city streets. Syracuse is a good sized city, but not so large as to make traveling via local streets too time-consuming. And unlike Boston, which seems to have too few long straight avenues passing through its different neighborhoods, Syracuse has enough of them to get you fairly easily from point A to point B.
We haven’t been to Syracuse a lot. This was maybe my second time driving around the city, and we only know a few places to eat, one of them being Dinosaur BBQ.
I decided to drive back to campus along city streets. I don’t know how many neighborhoods we went through, although Little Italy was one of them. Buildings looked vaguely familiar from our earlier trip to Dinosaur BBQ several months ago. It was certainly a more fascinating trip than taking the interstate.
I had an epiphany as I was driving through the city. GPS is a digital way for directions. A traditional map is the analog version.
In the digital world, everything is binary: yes-no, on-off, all-nothing. GPS gives you your direction. Sure, you can choose whether you want to take the fastest or the shortest route. But it takes you on your route as though you wear blinders. There’s no need to know what lies between Point A and Point B other than turns and exits.
Traveling using a traditional map gives you a much better sense of a city or wherever. You actually need to orient the map. You get to see the surrounding streets. You drive differently, too – you’re forced to watch for landmarks and street signs rather than listening for a voice to tell you how far you have to drive. Watching for landmarks and street signs makes you aware of the neighborhood, which doesn’t happen with GPS.
The difference reminded me of Clifford Stoll’s book, Silicon Snake Oil. The author, a very techie-type, questioned the high value many people place on digital technology. I remember in the book he described the difference between finding a library book in an on-line database versus the traditional card catalog. Stoll noted that the card catalog offers an opportunity to search serendipitously such that you can look at the cards around the specific book you seek, an analog way. The digital database takes you directly to your book and doesn’t offer a chance to “browse” the book via its card.
Personally, I can’t imagine functioning without digital technology. But I believe that we may rely too much on digital technology and not enough on the analog side. Spend time in the analog world and I think our lives will be richer for it because we get to see what’s around us. It’s looking at the grey areas. It’s noting little bits of things, like a store selling hookahs or an incongruous Thai restaurant in Little Italy, while you’re looking for the right-hand turn.
So, the route isn’t as direct or looking something up doesn’t give instantaneous results. Sure digital probably saves lots of time and is probably more accurate than analog. While I may not need to purchase a hookah or have plans to eat at a Thai restaurant in Little Italy, I just find it fun to know. I may not need that knowledge for anything, except maybe for fodder at a cocktail party or simply because. But I like to engage with my surroundings in an analog way – it makes my life interesting.