Schadenfreude and satnavs

The latest bit of Schadenfreude in the news is the report of the Derby County footballer (on loan from Liverpool) who followed the instructions of his GPS system and drowned his Porsche in a muddy hole. Cue much snickering behind hands; Porsches have that effect on people. Highly-paid footballers have that effect, too.

Footballers in this country are not generally regarded as a particularly intelligent breed. It may be that there is some justification for this and it may explain this country’s lack of recent success in international competitions. Still, notwithstanding the prejudices involved (against both Porsche owners and Premiership footballers), we shouldn’t sneer too much. This footballer is not alone in falling foul of satnav blindness. Lorry drivers are notorious for following satnavs in defiance of all logic (in fairness, there are a lot of lorry drivers and not very many make it into the newspapers).

This kind of thing seems to be going on all the time, though. While I was writing Caught!, the papers reported the case of a driver who wedged a 38-tonne juggernaut in a little side-road by obeying his satnav. Looking at the scene, it’s clear he couldn’t have thought that he could have got round that corner. The only conclusion is that he didn’t think. In Caught!, the villains use satnavs as a murder weapon and nothing I have seen in the year or so since I finished the novel has caused me to doubt the possibility of it. One of the characters coins the phrase “engage satnav, disengage brain” and evidently it’s as valid in real life as in any book.

Personally, I haven’t driven in a long time, and I’ve never used an in-car GPS system, but I have to say I was never inclined to trust the things. I have tried several of the computer-based route-finder systems and none of them worked properly. In fact, none of them got me out of my own road without going wrong. Every one of them told me to turn left into the next road; the problem was that the road in question was on the right — and it was a cul-de-sac. If the thing doesn’t work in an area you know, how can you trust it in an area you don’t? And the maps must surely be the same in route-finders and satnavs.  The really scary thing is that the route-finder error has been there for at least fifteen years and no one has bothered to correct it; so, what other nasties are left to lurk in these systems?

The drowned Porsche incident may have its comic element — no one was hurt and at least the fellow can afford to buy a new car, if he has to — but there is more than one serious side to it. These incidents are symptomatic of a frightening trend of Man subjugating his own judgement to instructions from a machine. And they are symptomatic, too, of the runaway train of computer technology. Our society, even our civilization, is ever more dependent on computer software, while the computer software industry is ever more firmly in the grip of amateurish idiots savants who simply have no grasp of the simple concept that they are paid to get things right. In truth, most of them are incapable of understanding what constitutes “right”. And people obey without question! As a writer of apocalyptic fiction, this situation ought to give me ideas; but the breadth and depth of the chaos that must surely ensue if things continue to deteriorate at this rate defies even my imagination.

Now I know how a lemming feels…

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