We should have been on the broad and familiar Autostrada, but instead we were deep in the narrow back roads. The Italian countryside slid by, dark as an oil slick, with only the white flank of a cow surfacing occasionally by the window. At barely six that January morning, the GPS was insisting, my husband was calmly obeying, and the two of them were driving me crazy. True, being late for a plane makes me frantic, like I'm trying to catch the last flight out of Saigon. But everyone knows that to get to Fiumicino Airport outside of Rome, you take the highway.
Everyone except my husband and Bertha, our GPS.
Chris and I are both technologists, but he's the more hardcore, holding a triple degree in mathematics, physics, and computer science. Accordingly, he's on intimate terms with Bertha. Truth be said, she'd never before led us astray -- even in Italy, where she refers to the Firenze-Siena Autostrada as the "Fear-and-Scene-ah."
For this trip, Chris personally programmed Bertha, using an interface between the GPS firmware and the planetarily omniscient Google. This increased her accuracy so much that, navigating hill-town streets as tangled as necklaces in the forgotten corner of my jewelry box, Bertha pinpointed desired museums, churches, and restaurants without a hint of fluster in her voice.
The scenic route can be delightful -- except when it's menacing. What a relief when blackness faded to gray dawn, a few planes appeared overhead, and a 12-foot razor-ribbon-topped fence scrolled by on my left.
Phew! The airport.
Then Bertha said, Turn left and navigate off-road.
Google had sharpened Bertha's nose all right. She'd pegged the exact center of Fiumicino airport -- in the middle of Runway #3.
My husband burst out laughing. I nearly burst out crying.
So there we were. No paper maps. And Bertha pointing us straight for a taxi-ing 747. Our only option? Road signs. As the car clock (I swear) sped up, we slowed down, pausing excruciatingly at every thicket of signs, trying to distinguish ones for Fiumicino town (bad) from Fiumicino airport (good). When was the last time I mulled the implications of a road sign's subtle slant? For years I've depended on Bertha's pink line, soothing as a swig of Pepto-Bismol.
We made it. (But don't get me started on returning Italian rental cars.) Yes, there was running, and lurching, and some banging on the door of one intra-terminal bus just a little too eager off the mark. Sighing into my airline seat, I felt I'd accomplished something unusually hardy -- like rubbing sticks to make a fire. It was at that moment I realized just how much technology was making me dependent and weak. Exactly when in the DVR-Google-Facebook-Smartphone-GPS mashup did following road signs become a lost art? Once, I used to at least try to learn my way around. Now Bertha's my pied-piper -- even for a five-turn trip to Costco. And it's not just navigation. I can't even dial my husband's cell by memory.
Living la vida digita is like externalizing my natural intelligence onto various hard drives, which now store all memories, the quadratic equation, predicate nominatives, my mother's recipe for Irish Soda Bread and the way to my sister's house. What's left behind is only the tiniest bit of rusty human intuition. If the drive ever goes down, I'll be an instant castaway -- marooned in my own backyard.