Intersection

Is technology getting between us and our destinations?

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Will the kinks ever really be worked out?
Illustration: Ian Racoma
Stacy J. Willis

Local Tesla driver Ryan Negri got a lot of grief on social media recently for leaving his key fob at home, driving into Red Rock Canyon and expecting Tesla’s keyless cell phone driving app to open his door and start the engine where there’s no cell service. He and his wife were stranded until she jogged two miles for help. “Even Tesla can’t fix stupid,” one critic said. But to me, a quasi-Luddite, the point was made: Metal car keys are better than fobs, certainly better than cell phones, and all of this is extraneous technology is really not that helpful.

To wit: My old landline never dumped a call when I was halfway through pushing a zillion pin numbers to access my cable account because my Internet stopped, and although I’m pretty sure the cable bill was paid via autopay, I can’t check my bank account without Internet or cell service, so I just sit there glad that my car keys work. Old, metal car keys. I like the way they feel in my hand: solid.

I suppose I should be less concerned about driving, generally, as I slouch toward virtual reality, as I hop on the City of Las Vegas’ admittedly adorable driverless shuttle ARMA, as I decline to drink one of 51,744 cans of Budweiser delivered by Uber’s driverless tractor trailer startup Otto. Last year a man died while watching a Harry Potter movie in his self-driving Tesla, which decided to drive under a tractor trailer. These incidents have been rare, and industry experts say that once the kinks are worked out, computer-driven vehicles will be statistically safer than human-driven ones. Once the kinks are worked out. I think about that when I’m staring at my frozen computer screen and its too-familiar spinning ball icon. Are the kinks ever really worked out?

*****

“In 200 feet, turn left … You have arrived at your destination,” my phone announces. But I have not arrived at my destination, I have arrived in a massive parking lot full of independent industrial structures. So I begin driving between them, semi-searching, semi-waiting for further instructions from a little device that runs my life. Google Maps Lady tells me, “Make a U-turn.” I once swore I would not be a mindless follower of GPS apps, but I’m late for an appointment, I’m stressing and I see no addresses on these buildings, so I make her U-turn. “In 200 feet, turn right,” she says confidently. I turn right—into a loading dock. Crap. I back out, turn around and head to the street looking for signage. “In 200 feet, make a U-turn,” the increasingly insane and authoritarian voice orders.

“F*ck you,” I say to an inanimate object, now very late for my appointment.

“If you said something, I did not understand it,” she says. Wow. Passive aggressive much?

Why, I wonder, have I not just stopped to place a telephone call to the office I’m trying to find, to ask a human for directions? Why have I grown a weird attachment to my device? There was a time when I considered myself pretty good with directions, and always prompt. Now that technology is helping me, I’m often turning left three times in giant parking lots, reluctant to resume control over my steering wheel, my mind. “You have arrived at your destination,” she tells me as I stare at a vacant lot. No. I have not. I am not where I need to be, physically, mentally, technologically. I am losing my autonomy.

*****

Later, after apologizing for being late to my appointment and blaming a phone, I drive out to Red Rock in my old car, with my old keys, where I know there’s no cell service, and I take my old self for a walk among very old mountains. They were here before humans, and Clark County Commission willing, they will be here long after us. But they might not outlast the self-actuating robots.

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