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Looking at the bigger picture

By Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon - 21st Apr 2024

Bigger picture

Relying on technology for directions can be a disorienting experience

There was a time when an entire British comedy sketch could be based on a Vauxhall Astra driver (usually a man) being led astray by a passenger (usually a woman) with a large paper map spread out across the dashboard, and lots of accompanying shouting and screeching of brakes until, at last, the entirely unpredictable punchline would come – “You’ve got the bloody map upside down!”

These jokes don’t work anymore, because no one has purchased a paper map in about 20 years. And even if they did, it would come in a handy laminated A4 binder with QR codes on each page directing the reader to real-time traffic updates and special offers in the nearest Starbucks.

We have all had the experience of typing our destination into the map app on our phone, picking the one that says “shortest”, and setting off blindly into the traffic without any actual clue as to what route we are about to take. We accept without question the instructions to ‘stay left’, ‘merge into right lane’, ‘take the second exit.’ Even when we end up in the junkyard of a disused quarry, we still press forward until the stern satnav lady starts re-routing and tells us to do a U-turn.

Ireland is a particularly dangerous country in which to assume that the shortest route is always the best one. Poor old Google Maps is used to the traditional concept of a “road”; that is, something a vehicle could reasonably be expected to travel along without losing most of its undercarriage. In fact, Google frequently makes the fanciful assumption that two vehicles could share such a road, going in opposite directions. This is, as we know, absolutely NOT a given on most roads beginning with L. The other problem is that once you have gone down one of these axle-splitting boreens, you really have no choice but to keep going, because a U-turn would require an excursion into Farmer Paddy’s prize beet. So we forge forward over the potholes and cowpats, sweating in anticipation of Paddy Jr coming hurtling around the corner in his father’s Massey, keen to get the milking done before the Junior B Cup Final.

If we had looked at the route on a map of old-fashioned Michelin paper, we would have seen the lovely thick green, relatively straight line of the national route which meanders slightly into various towns and villages, but does have a white line painted down the middle and even, occasionally, a hard shoulder. We could squint at the teeny white lines which look straight as a die on the map, and seemingly bypass all of those pesky conurbations, which to an unseasoned eye might seem like the most sensible crow-flying plan of action. But we would know, by the minuteness of the faintest markings on the map, that these lines denote not roads. but the vague idea of a road; the hint of a highway, the suggestion of a street, the thought of a thoroughfare. And we would opt every time for the imperfect, but passable main drag, safe in the knowledge that the potholes on this one are less likely to swallow us whole.


Ireland is a particularly dangerous country in which to assume that the shortest route is always the best one

The virtue of looking at the bigger picture also strikes me when reading books. E-books are better for the environment, easier to transport, and conveniently available on our phones whenever we fancy a quick read. But they fail to orientate us properly. If I pick up a real life copy of War and Peace in Eason’s, I have a pretty good idea of what I am about to take on. I am under no illusion that this will be a holiday read. I will factor in the extra 1kg in my backpack if I fancy strolling to the local café for a quiet literary interlude. As I make my way through the tome, I’ll be able to see how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go. I know that my Kindle can tell me what page I’m on, and how many chapters there are, and the estimated time to completion, but the tactile subliminal messages sent out by the heft of an actual printed publication are much more subtle and intuitive.

Sometimes we know more when we have all of the information in our hands at once, not fed to us piecemeal by the magic of artificial intelligence. It can be hard to see the wood for the trees. I promise to plant a few to make up for the reams of paper.

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