why I think that navigation apps are stupid

I must admit that one side of social isolation policy I really like, is the absence of traffic. Since we moved out of London, I hit the road almost daily. Daily I see a lot of traffic. Miles of it, hours of it. Traffic is something that always is in the way of getting anywhere on time. It constantly makes me a liar. “I’ll be there at five… around five….. definitely before six….. , traffic permitting”. It makes me a liar and it kills whatever patience and kindness is left in me. It forces my children to witness road rage, various comments about the mental ability of the slow or reckless drivers and even some accelerating on the amber light (in London three more cars will still come after me).

So, for me to get anywhere, I have to rely on navigation apps. The one I use is smart. It takes in account the real time traffic, warns of potholes on the road (useful), and finds the most efficient way of getting from A to B. It tells me exactly how much time my journey will take. As the situation on the road changes, it pings delightfully and lets me know that we are arriving 3 minutes early, or informs me that we are delayed. The app works really hard behind the scenes, constantly finding better routes, better in the app’s simplistic thinking. We constantly have these battles: “Are you really sending me down the dark windy country lanes to save 2 minutes of the journey? You must be kidding. Not falling for this again!”

I do experience a secret pleasure in outsmarting my app. I gleam with pride when my personal judgement and knowledge of the roads wins me a minute. And secretly I delight in disobeying my digital road master from time to time, rebelliously turning left, when instructed to bear right. Just to show who is still holding the wheel.

Now, back to the unusually quiet situation on the roads due to pandemic. There is easier to see something in its absence. When the usual busyness disappears, we can see much clearer the role of the technology in the busyness. Yesterday I had a surreal discovery. The smart and hard-working app didn’t click that roads are practically empty. Despite the fact that it is feeding from the real time traffic, it still overestimates my arrival by ten to twenty minutes! (imagine my joy!) Why is that? This happens because part of the app’s algorithm commands it to add time for rush hour.

So, we can see that the app is built for busyness, but can it cause the business? The answer is very simple. The app does what it is meant to do, but does it too well. Even in the absence of any traffic, it thinks that it is a rush hour; the app still finds shorter, more efficient routes. There is no need to arrive even earlier, to drive into dangerous side roads, overtaking and squeezing through in order to win 20 seconds. But the app can never relax, and so are we, as long as we obediently rely on it.

In the post-apocalyptic scenario, I can clearly imagine smug driverless cars, without any passengers, scurrying down clever shortcuts, arriving “3 minutes early”, avoiding pot holes, slowing down for speed cameras. Let them be. Let technology hurry. Allow yourself to disconnect and stop outsmarting it, do what humans do well – breathe, love, laugh, feel sad, do stupid things, create something beautifully imperfect.