About a month ago, a family riding their ATVs came upon a woman in a van in the remote wilderness of northern Nevada. The woman had been stranded there for seven weeks, rationing her food and drinking muddy water; she was very near death. Her husband had set off on foot to find help a few days after their van had gotten stuck in the mud, and as of this writing, he still has not been found.
This story is tragic enough, but what is even more heartbreaking is how the couple got stranded in the first place. According to news reports, the couple was not from the area, but were instead attempting to take a scenic route to Las Vegas. Unfamiliar with the local terrain, they had followed the advice of their GPS navigation system, and taken a road that even in good weather would have been unpredictably treacherous. A few miles in, their van became mired in mud and they were unable to turn around.
This story, and others like it, have been causing me to ponder why we seem to put so much faith in these kinds of technological systems. I don’t presume to know the full details of this couple’s ordeal—the reports in the press have so far been too vague—but I wonder why they trusted the advice of their GPS navigation system in such a remote and potentially dangerous area? Why did they continue down what was clearly not a main road when they were unfamiliar with the area, and it was getting close to dark?
As I have been thinking about this, a new distinction has been forming in my mind, a distinction between treating a new artifact or system as a supplement to existing skills, or as a substitute for them. GPS navigation systems are often marketed as if they can completely substitute for more rudimentary navigation and route-choosing skills. But when approached in this way, users might be tempted to wander off into potentially dangerous territory, thinking that their devices will always safely guide them to their destinations. But what happens when the information is out of date, or simply misleading? What happens when the system malfunctions?
When we approach a GPS navigation system as a supplement to existing, hard-won skills, the devices can indeed be quite helpful. My friends have told me stories about how their devices have guided them successfully through unfamiliar cities, but each of them would also override the system’s advice if it started to take them in what seemed like the wrong direction, or through what looked like a dangerous area. Their existing navigational and evaluative skills are still in charge, and the GPS navigation system is acting only as a supplement to them.
This is not to say, however, that we should never let a technology become a complete substitute for existing skills, but we do need to be aware of the costs that come along with letting that happen. Although my furnace and thermostat are a substitute for the skills of building and maintaining an open-hearth fire, I certainly do not think that is a bad thing. There are costs to this substitution—I would have no idea how to fix it if it broke, and thus would need to hire an expert to repair it, and it creates a reliance on fossil fuels, as well as the loss of what Borgmann calls a “focal” thing—but those costs do not outweigh the benefits it provides. In the end, it is a trade-off that I am willing to make.
The trouble, I think, comes when we do not even consider the costs, or put so much faith in the system’s reliability that we think those costs will never occur. We too often accept the claims of marketers without critical evaluation, and fail to consider carefully the trade-offs we are making. Some of those trade-offs are desirable or even necessary, but others are perhaps not. Only through reflection and discussion can we determine which is which.
Is this distinction between supplements and substitutes helpful to you? Can you think of other examples where you have substituted a technology for more rudimentary skills, and do you think that has been a net benefit for you? What other kinds of technologies need to be approached as supplements rather than substitutes?