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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

March 9, 2013 at 8:56 PM

Google knows the way, right? When map app philosophies collide

I was smiling. He was furious.

We were on Route 16, headed west, on our way to a friend’s place in Gig Harbor. From the phone sitting in the cupholder between us, Google Maps’ voice broke the silence. “Continue for five miles.” My grin withered. By the way Jason, my husband, was fuming, you’d think I’d just done something terrible.

I didn’t let him look at the iPhone’s map.

It happened minutes before. We were cruising down the freeway when I read the next direction we’d loaded on the Google Maps app on our way out of Seattle. “Take Exit 1A.” And there was the exit, coming closer. Jason hesitated. Why would we leave 16 now? I shrugged. “That’s what it says.” I peeked at the live map as we took the exit. The highlighted route continued west on the freeway. We were off course.

Wait — what?

The app rerouted. Jason groaned. I shrugged. I activated the turn-by-turn directions — we hadn’t had them on — and relaxed. Jason sat up.

“Give me the phone.”

“Why? It’s rerouting.”

“I need to look at the map.”

“Not while you’re driving.”

“Fine. I’ll pull over.”

“No! We’ll lose time!”

"Take Exit 1A," huh? When Google Maps' directions knocked us off course on our way to Gig Harbor, my husband and I had very different reactions.

“Take Exit 1A,” huh? When Google Maps knocked us off course, my husband and I had very different reactions.

I gripped the phone. Jason won’t just let go and trust live maps apps. This was the perfect time to show him how absurd that was.

Or not. The argument escalated. Our voices grew louder. Moments later, while I still found this kind of funny, he burst. Then he gripped the wheel and stared ahead, quiet. “I need a minute.”

Stunned, I loaded my email, absent-mindedly checking messages, and considered. Maybe there was a mix-up back there, but Google Maps knows more about how to get anywhere than anybody. I trust it. Jason doesn’t. Which of us is right?
Could there be a good reason not to trust something that’s clearly smarter than you are?

Jason would say the app isn’t really smarter at all.

Granted, the text direction on our trip to Gig Harbor was confusing. OK, wrong. But if Jason had been watching the app’s live map as he drove, it would have been easy for him to know what to do. I had offered to turn on its turn-by-turn directions and place the phone in his view as soon as when we entered unknown territory. It sits there nicely when I drive somewhere new. But he didn’t want it there. He didn’t watch the live map at all.

That denied the app its ability to do its job. How can you say you don’t trust something when you don’t fully listen?
But my approach — I’ve realized — has bigger problems.

When Apple Maps launched to awful reviews last year, Google Maps took on an almost divine perfection by comparison. I was already there. For years I’ve treated Google Maps like the all-seeing, all-knowing transportation savior I’ve desperately needed. I’m terrible at directions. Always have been. So it’s given me an excuse to do something that’s pretty absurd itself — stop thinking.

Last week I loaded directions to a spot in Sodo, the phone cradled in that dashboard nook, and missed the exit. The app had just given a direction, and the one telling me to exit came too fast. If I had been paying attention, I would have known there were no more exits before the West Seattle Bridge. My brain should have kicked in, but I was relying entirely on the app.

I’d denied my brain its ability to do its job.

So I realized: Our different reactions to the Gig Harbor detour stemmed not just from how much Jason and I trust the maps app, but how much we trust ourselves.

After the mix-up, the app told us to go right. Jason went left. Even I had to admit — it was a better way.

Jason’s internal compass actually works. He doesn’t let some app order him around without his approval. He likes to look over its shoulder, check its work, then go.

I wanted him to let go. But he’s not the one who feels he has to.

Is it sensible to give total control to a tool that can do something better than you can, or an abdication?

I’ll have to ponder that on the next drive.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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