Indistinguishable from magic

The Thinker by Rodin

About a year ago, I was in Colorado for my brother’s wedding. The airport shuttle parked me at a Boulder shopping center where my sister Mary and her rental car were waiting to take me to my first wedding activity. Plastered to the windshield was her Garmin global positioning system (GPS). Mary did not know her way around Boulder but it didn’t matter. Her GPS did.

Mary has an odd sense of humor. I asked her about her GPS. “Oh, you mean Jesus?” she said. “Jesus?” I asked her. “I call it Jesus, because Jesus always knows the right path.”

Reputedly, Jesus also had some skills being miraculous. Not only was he dead for three days and managed to resurrect himself, but he made a handful of loaves of bread and some fishes feed a multitude. He cured lepers and blind people. He walked on water. At least this is what the Bible teaches. I cannot claim to believe in these miracles. I suspect though that if someone could take a GPS back two millennium to ancient Palestine, teach it to speak Aramaic and programmed all the world’s known cities, towns, hamlets, roads and goat paths into it, things would be a lot different. Instead of the cross, Christianity would be symbolized by the now ubiquitous rectangular portable GPS. For surely only God could make a tiny little box speak. Only God could guide someone around the entire known world by itself.

“Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic,” was science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke‘s Third Law of Prediction. To me my new Garmin nüvi 350 GPS must be magic. It defies reason to think that an object so small could be that darn smart. I bought it for a mere $200 through buy.com to help us navigate during our vacation this summer. I have been taking it on test drives. This thing is much smarter than I am, at least when it comes to knowing its way around town. It knows the names of streets before I get there. It gives me warnings before I need to turn. If I need a place to stay, it knows the hotels in my immediate vicinity, along with many popular restaurants. About the only thing it does not do is make Julienne fries. However, it can take me to restaurants that serve Julienne fries.

My nüvi is not my first GPS. My wife bought me one years ago as a Christmas present. It was also a Garmin, but it was relatively brain dead. It could tell me within a hundred feet or so where I was. However, with its limited memory it could not hold much in the way of maps. Therefore, I rarely used it. Telling you where you are is not that much of a trick. Telling you where you are in relationship to other places and what those places are, now that’s a trick. It’s a trick because in order to relate your location to other places you have to know where all these other places are located. My nüvi knows. Embedded somewhere in its silicon is a street atlas for the entire United States, Mexico and Canada, along with the locations of businesses, hotels, retail establishments and many points of interest. It can figure out the fastest route between two places, the shortest route and (for some extra money) route me around bad traffic. With an optional memory card, it can even help me in Quebec and Mexico, by translating common phrases from English.

I do not have to keep it in my car plastered next to my windshield. It is portable. With its rechargeable battery, I have four to eight hours of disconnected use. When I am in the car, I can charge it through a device connected to my otherwise unused cigarette lighter. I will use it when walking cities like Boston, so I will never be lost, and always know the way back to my hotel. While I may run out of gas on the road, as long as I keep my nüvi I will know how far it is to the nearest gas station. Moreover, if I need to stop at a fast food joint on my way home, it will take me there. It will also track my total miles, speed and trip duration.

Nor do I have to worry about my geographically impaired daughter. With a nüvi she can get where she needs to go and always find her way home too. Call me paranoid though but I will still insist she carry a road atlas with her. Not that she has fully mastered the art of reading maps, but just in case the nüvi’s batteries go dead she might be able to navigate her way home. More likely, she will call me on her cell phone and have me navigate her home.

Back in the 1970s when I was a pimply faced teenager, my friend Tom and I were the local space bigots. We were pretty obnoxious about it, which is probably why we turned off many of our classmates. We would hear things like, “What good is the space program? We’re spending all that money to send people into space, yet we have people starving right here at home.”

It was a good argument but a bit shortsighted. For the space program forced us to develop smaller and better circuitry so that both spacecraft and satellites could work in a vacuum with minimal power. One type of satellite shot into space is of course is the global positioning satellite. By broadcasting its signals, it allows my nüvi to know where it is. It is only relatively recently though that the technology became cheap enough for average people. All that rocketry also indirectly spawned something called ARPAnet, which later became known as the Internet, which I can use to update my nüvi software, or purchase additional services for my GPS.

It is amazing how complacent we are about these modern miracles like the GPS. Yet they truly are magical inventions. These synergistic devices harvest the fruits of many advanced technologies into one device that should truly astound us.

I promise you that I will not worship my GPS. Nor will I call it Jesus, although I may call it Aristotle, for being so wise. Yet for all the many faults of humanity, we can easily overlook our triumphs. A GPS is one of many modern miracles that we can attribute to man. It speaks to the genius and potential that man possesses.

One thought on “Indistinguishable from magic

  1. If you think the portable GPS systems are magic, you should see what they’re doing with the glass-panel cockpit displays for airplanes. Garmin is a leading supplier of integrated cockpit systems and has a dual LCD screen setup called G1000 that replaces analog flight instruments and includes a large-screen GPS navigation panel similar to the portable devices. The main difference being that it know all about airports (and their radio frequencies and ground taxi-way diagrams), terrain, obstacles, as well as major roads and other landmarks visible from the air. They’ve even integrated XM sattelite weather into the system so you can see near real-time weather radar right on the screen.

    They’re now taking it a step further and actually rendering terrain, obstacles, and flight paths into the flight control display. If you’re flying in less-than-visual conditions (clouds, etc), you would normally rely on ground-based radio navigation. Their newest creation basically turns the flight control display into a video game that just happens to be hooked up to the airplane. Now that’s magic!

    See: http://www.aopa.org/pilot/firstlook/080408garminsvs.html

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