The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Personalizing machines

Diane will understand why Wired editor Jonah Lehrer keeps his crappy GPS. Not because her GPS is crappy, but because "Jack" talks to her:

I have a complicated relationship with my GPS unit. On the one hand, it rarely works. Here's what happened the last time I turned it on. First, there was a five minute delay while it searched for the satellite signal. Then, it couldn't find the street I was searching for. Then, it found the street but lost the satellite signal. Then, it regained the signal but sent me in the wrong direction. And then, after I'd already gotten accurate directions off my phone, the GPS unit finally decided that it knew where I was going. In other words, the device sucks.

But here's the funny part: I still use the device every time I'm even a little lost or unsure of where I'm going. In fact, I sometimes turn the machine on even when I know exactly where I'm headed. Why? I'm not quite sure. Although the device drives me crazy, and I'm constantly complaining about it (see above), I also enjoy interacting with that posh British voice emanating from the gadget, as it mispronounces every street name and tells me to take the wrong turn. When I'm alone in the car, the stupid piece of plastic feels like a companion.

... Why, then, am I so indulgent of my GPS unit? The answer, I think, has to do with the facade of agency. This machine speaks to me, calmly telling me where to go and why it's failing to telling me where to go. Sometimes, when the gadget is really struggling, I get the sense that it wants to apologize, that it feels bad it's so utterly ineffective.

For the record, "Jack" is Australian. And I have to laugh the way "he" reacts when Diane decides to follow a different route than Jack plotted for her: he seems to sigh and, with the patience of someone training a puppy, tells her he's "recalculating." We really aren't far away from Genuine People Personalities, are we?

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