I recently spent some time with a young, passionate emergency care nurse about to ship out with Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors without Borders. She’s headed to Monrovia, Liberia for a six to eight week deployment on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak. Not yet thirty, she’s already an MSF veteran in parts of the world that most Americans can hardly find on a map, to say nothing of being able to imagine themselves working there for a single day. To meet her you’d never know.
I do it. I bet you do it, too.
Maps! I'm talking about digital maps! Getting from "here" to "there"! (You never know what people really think when they read a blog.)
Not too very long ago it used to be that we all found our way around the flat earth with crinkled paper maps. When we couldn't get good ground truth from our multi-colored route finders, we'd stop for directions at a local store or gas station and ask for directions. We'd scribble notes about where to turn and how far to travel. We'd try to figure if the received guidance jived with clues we could glean from our printed maps, and we'd try to estimate which compass direction we thought we were headed.
Now we follow blue dots, or let disembodied voices in our telephones tell us where to turn.
Those cloud-based, scalable maps are marvels, to be sure. Millions ditched paper maps faster than bowls of cold oatmeal and instantly found where they needed to go. Major new market segments exploded, supply-chain management and package delivery systems accelerated, and traffic information finally offered the potential that things might get better where it counted. Where could there possibly be a downside?
I'm not crying "downside", but I am raising a philosophical point. You're gonna roll your eyes (I know you are!), but try to open your mind to this. I miss the moments of unexpected discovery that came from finding less predictable ways through space. I miss the moments of achievement, the brain work necessary to figure out complex routes, the discoveries of how cities and towns were arranged. And, like endless examples in a million different forums, I miss the casual brush with unexpected people whom I might have to ask for directions.
Yes, I have to admit it: even as I miss certain aspects of what used to be, route finding is better now. It's faster, more efficient, surprisingly accurate, and with crowd sourced inputs getting better all the time. But the nuanced moments of invention and discovery are largely gone from the process. Creative solutions to ordinary dilemmas are the sparks of ignition that often provoke greater flights of invention downstream. Sure, modernity has replaced old problems with new ones, and individuals--and cultures--constantly encounter new challenges to lash to the creative wheel.
But for a creative person, I suppose the thing that most captures my attention is that we are gradually ceding our personal responsibility to inhuman systems. I'm concerned about algorithms seeping into every aspect of our lives under the guise of "making life a little easier".
First it was speed dialing that made us forget phone numbers. Then auto-correction software killed our collective ability to spell. Kids no longer learn to write cursive handwriting--whither the personal signature? Now it's maps, and all that goes with it.
It's better now, yes. But when the software police come to bolt algorithmically pre-digested dialogue into one of my screenplays, I think we'll know that things have gone past the point of no return.
--MS (Hey, you can follow me on Twitter @michaelstarobin if you're so motivated.)
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