Now that everyone has become completely dependent on GPS, it’s possible to locate ourselves to an astounding degree of accuracy anywhere on the planet — while simultaneously becoming completely and utterly lost. I am talking hopelessly, pathetically lost. This was never possible even a short while ago when most folks still knew how to read a map, trust their instincts and listen to spoken directions. But in the last few years, as gadgetry has gotten smarter people, seem to have gotten dumber. There’s just no getting around it.
We often get calls at Fiddlehead Farm where I work in North Tisbury, asking for directions. It’s generally pretty standard stuff. You determine which direction they are coming from and offer them a prominent or easily recognizable landmark. Being located right on a major thoroughfare well within view by passing motorists makes giving directions pretty straightforward. Usually it would suffice to say, “Keep driving a ways and look for a building on the right that looks like a farm stand.” Sometimes we were on the left hand side but giving directions suddenly became much more complicated. One of our younger employees informed me that they even have versions of these devices that actually speak to you and tell you when and which way to turn. She allowed that it saved time and I guess she’s right, since figuring out how to refold a map can use up precious minutes. Saving time seems to have become an essential element in our modern world since people are generally spending most of their waking hours either being interrupted by phone calls and texts or busy interrupting other people with the same.
In the last few weeks we’ve had several calls to the store asking for directions but these were not run-of-the mill queries. The callers could not seem to tell us where they were coming from or where they thought they were. They even made claims as strange as: “We’ve just passed Menemsha on State Road and we are almost at the airport.” One poor soul called several times and managed to pass the store without recognizing it — not once or even twice but three times. It became clear to me that something serious was going on. A tectonic shift in modern life had occurred before my very eyes.
The obliging person who fielded these increasingly distressed calls finally agreed to actually go outside, stand on the side of the road with a cordless phone in hand and wave them in. I think I would have become frustrated after the second missed attempted landing and told them to get lost, but that was the only thing they seemed capable of getting right, GPS notwithstanding.
So how does a carload of supposedly sentient beings, adults no less, pass a store, a farm stand with its large display of fruits and vegetables out front, a roadside sign and a parking lot after three consecutive tries without recognizing it? Suddenly being lost had taken on a whole new dimension. The usual visual prompts and directions have become utterly useless because people have severed their connection to the physical world.
In the modern world of GPS, even a trip down to the hardware store can be fraught with anxiety, the disembodied electronic voice sounding like the radioman on the Itasca trying to guide Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra to Howland Island.
I admit that I find myself lamenting a lot of things as I get older and the steady loss of skills that were once a part of daily life figure prominently on that list. I know that my sentiments must seem quaint to many, since most people seem perfectly happy relying on one gadget or another to get them through the day, and when I try to discuss my observations I usually get exasperated dismissive looks.
Instead of crafting even more elaborate directions to accommodate (dare I say pander to?) this new generation of hopelessly lost and preoccupied travelers, I have decided instead to construct a large pile of old tires at the entrance to our parking lot, a very low-tech solution indeed. Before long someone will call asking directions and I will stand at the ready. I’ll set fire to the tires and tell them to look for the plumes of thick black smoke on the left (or right) side of the road and leave it at that. I guess I’ll just have to cross my fingers that they still know how distinguish left from right without outside help.
Robert Skydell lives in Chilmark and owns Fiddlehead Farm in North Tisbury.