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Saturday, February 17 News

Living with Technology: A tech dead-end the day the GPS conked out

When driving, I used to read and follow maps. GPS (Geographic Positioning Systems), first as stand-alone units and later as an integral part of smartphones, have relegated my keeping maps in my car to a not-very-important aspect of traveling.

My children have not learned to read maps, either.

I've become accustomed to listening to and generally blindly following the instructions that come from the voice from within my smartphone's navigation app.

So over the weekend, when I was driving my son and a friend to sleep-away camp and the navigation on my phone refused to work, I was in a bit of a quandary: What roads should I take to get to camp?

Pre-GPS dependency, before I left my home I would ensure I had the proper maps, sometimes necessitating a trip to AAA for an update, the destination address, maybe even the instructions given by the place where I was driving.

Together, these items were pretty good at getting me where I wanted to go. Back in the day, we didn't have real-time traffic updates. Those came from radio broadcasts, if we knew which stations to listen to along the route.

All of that planning is gone, nowadays. I typically put the destination address into a calendar item on my laptop computer which syncs with my phone. When I want to go somewhere, I simply click on the address and my smartphone dutifully guides me there.

But on Sunday, this failed me.

All of the rebooting of my mobile phone, turning off and on the "Location" capabilities, agreeing to be tracked, etc., still netted me with a "GPS Signal Lost" message from my smartphone.

This happened when I was en route; if I'd been at home, I could have printed something out and taken it with me.

Luckily, I do have some old maps that I keep in the pocket on the door of my car that I could have used, although I didn't know exactly where I was.

Ultimately, because my wife was with me, she had a smartphone that was working and we were able to make our way to our destination without having to resort to a paper map.

What this taught me is how dependent we've become on basic, daily functions, such as navigating.

The GPS satellites are controlled by the United States government and they remind us that in times of emergency, they can turn it off. This is just one of the reasons why the Europeans have pursued a separate GPS system. It's understandable that foreign governments don't want to rely on the United States for their navigation abilities.

But closer to home, this taught me of the importance of being able to navigate using "offline" methods, such as a map.

For our next road trips, I will certainly ensure I make a trip to AAA to obtain "fresh" maps, then have my family plan our route and track our progress, comparing it with our GPS units.

I predict the task won't be well received by some in my family, and I hope they never need the skill of map reading. But this weekend's experience made clear to me the importance of being able to get by without common technology.

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Mark Mathias is a Westport resident and has worked in information technology for more than 30 years. His "Living With Technology" appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at: livingwithtechnology@mathias.org