Missing maps and the fragility of technology

Recently Tim O’Reilly wrote about how using maps on his phone, and assuming they’d work where he was going, got him into trouble on a recent road trip:

It was a beautiful late spring day towards the end of May, hot even, so the last thing I was thinking about was the possibility that Sierra passes might still be closed. So I was quite surprised to find a sign that the road ahead was closed in 5 miles. I’d have to turn around and retrace my path for over 80 miles.

Now right away, I felt rather betrayed by Google Maps. (Bing Maps was no better.) After all, if the relatively small number of Sierra passes are closed for extended periods of time, how hard would it be to detect that fact and automatically deliver only a working route? Instead, Google provided only a small disclaimer (and one that appears only just before the failed step in the route), that the road ahead “might” be closed. Unless I read the entire list of directions carefully, I wouldn’t see the warning till just about the point where I saw it on a road sign! (read full article here)

There’s an old story in here about the double edged sword of technology. I left the following comment:

In Plato’s Phaedrus, there’s a story about King Thamus debating the pros and cons of writing *as a technology* – he feels people will remember less and therefore think less, and the downsides of writing outweigh the benefits.

Its inescapable that each layer of technology we use demands a quiet trade of convenience for dependence, and we’re unlikely to notice until its too late to recover. Printed maps work great too until you realize the map is simply wrong (it happens), or doesn’t provide enough detail to be of use. All technologies have limits, you just don’t notice them unless you’re poking at the boundaries of things.

The sensible survivalists talk about contingency – anything you depend on should be within your power to obtain through multiple means. And it seems that’s good advice for anyone traveling. Most people who get into trouble when venturing forth are underprepared – what’s fascinating is how the convenience of technology has made us comfortable doing many things without any preparation at all.

There’s a  similar article about tourists getting into trouble in Death Valley because of GPS.

9 Responses to “Missing maps and the fragility of technology”

  1. Steven B. Levy

    Technology is no substitute for common sense. Even smart folks like O’Reilly forget that…

  2. Christopher Dillon

    I made a similar mistake this week, showing up in Shanghai and expecting that Google Maps would be available. Bing and Nokia were equally useless.

  3. Richard I. Garber


    Sometimes the map might be wrong on purpose. When I was growing up in Pittsburgh I noticed that the city map from Gulf Oil always contained a fictitious road connection in Schenley Park between Schenley Drive and the middle of a horseshoe bend on E. Circuit Road. It probably was one of a set of errors for letting them detect if someone had copied their map.

    Back when I was a student the printed directory for Carnegie Mellon University used to contain a set of phony names with real addresses, and phony addresses with real names. Those features were for detecting who was reselling it as a commercial mailing list. One of my friends was renamed Wadza Duckworth, and another had his computer science department address relisted as being an always-locked storage closet within a room in Wean Hall. Any time those ringers got mail the sender got a cease and desist letter from an attorney.


  4. Ben

    Even more dangerous is relying on technology that relies on technology.

    I once received a text message from Google voice that was a translation of an automated voice message from Delta Airlines telling me that the gate for my next flight changed from D35 to G35. The text message was correct except for the fact that the G35 should have been B35 and that G35 did not exist. Luckily I listened to the voice message after 5 minutes of looking for G35 and made the connection.

  5. Online Profiling

    Technology in the recent world has no bounds. I found certain articles over the web when originating some new technology on the way a number of new innovations arises. This all leads to some motivational factors that motivate more people to generate new ideas. Thanks for your content …

  6. Chester McLaughlin

    The discussion with King Thamus is used as a jumping off point in Neil Postman’s excellent book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.



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