by J. David Bell
Melanie, our co-pilot on this Father’s Day trip to Derry, Pennsylvania, was not entirely a figment of my imagination, but neither was she a real person. Rather, she was a digitized construct of our new portable GPS receiver, a gift from my wife’s twin sister. (Dizygotic, my wife six minutes the elder.) Melanie was no acronym, though it was easy enough to devise one for her (Motorist’s Everyday Locator And Navigational Interior Equipment); she was a simulacrum, a ghost of a person, represented onscreen by a silhouetted profile with luxuriant sweep of shoulder-length hair. She had beaten out the other preprogrammed contenders, Lori and Richard, due to the raspy quality of Lori’s voice and the fifties-robotic clangor of his. According to the instructions booklet, premium features on the manufacturer’s website included downloadable voices from such luminaries as John Cleese and Mr. T (“I pity da fool who don’t turn right in five hundred yards!”). But the voices of the stars were apt to be pricey and we were hesitant to divulge our email address, so Melanie it was.
Suction-cupped to the windshield of our Honda Civic hybrid and powered by the car’s cigarette lighter, Melanie was an unobtrusive gizmo, no bigger than a muffin and, though I kept a nervous eye on her throughout the trip, rock steady through bumps, stops, and rumble strips. Crunched into her petite display lay a wealth of information: floating street names and multihued icons, directional arrows, speed and mileage indicators, current time and ETA. Touch-screen technology summoned all from the monitor: you could type in location and destination, zoom in for a closer look or scale back for a bird’s eye view, select from a palette of day and nighttime color schemes (the latter, to my eye, looking uncomfortably like the noisome neon of early CGI experiments such as Tron). And then, anchoring it all, there was Melanie’s mellifluous voice, polite and self-assured, telling us where to go.
With Melanie as our onboard tour guide, I found myself freed, forced, to think of other things. I thought of how we had gotten to this point. Of my relationship to my android chauffeur, and, through her, to my world. I thought of how, in short, this miraculous machine had changed my positioning.
Everyone knows, more or less, how the Global Positioning System works: there are satellites up there, and there are cars down here, and they talk to each other. As a little online and library research reveals, it’s a trifle more complicated than that in reality, but the premise is sound.
A radiopositioning system, GPS currently deploys 31 satellites orbiting at roughly 12,500 miles above earth and synchronized so that at any moment a minimum of four are visible from any point on the planet. At the approximate rate of once every millisecond, these satellites beam near-light-speed microwave radio signals, bearing a digital code indicating time, satellite position, and other system information, to an end receiver, in this case the box built or billeted in your car. Like a cell phone, BlackBerry, or any such wireless device, the receiver is exquisitely sensitive to, as well as finicky about, the infinity of floating streams with which we’ve flooded the atmosphere; only those signals of specified frequencies are recognized and decoded. With their antennae constantly putting out feelers for fresh data, the Melanies of our motor fleet gauge position via a process known as trilateration, the measurement of distance between the subject and at least two known points of reference. GPS receivers vary in the number of incoming signals they can process, but today’s generation typically tracks anywhere from twelve to twenty (the higher the number, the more accurate the positioning). A multitude of environmental and mechanical factors—atmospheric conditions, interference from other signals, fluctuation in the satellites’ atomic clocks, solar flares—can affect the performance of GPS. So, apparently, can car defrosters and coated windshields. Even the theory of relativity comes into play, the weaker gravitational pull on orbiting satellites warping the timing of their clocks relative to those on earth. Notwithstanding these factors, GPS typically fixes a user’s location to within nine feet—an accuracy predicted to drop to nine inches once a covey of new satellites takes wing in 2019.
Most discussions of GPS emphasize the lofty satellite ring to the near exclusion of the unassuming receiver, perhaps because those flashy manmade moons call such attention to themselves, perhaps because we favor the extraterrestrial over the earthbound. But Melanie was no slouch either. Far from being the inert, passive object the name “receiver” might imply, she was a powerful piece of technology in her own right, a microcomputer capable not only of divining reams of data but of charting journeys throughout the continental United States via the maps stored in her memory and, just as impressive, of recalibrating them instantaneously if the erring driver went awry. Granted, without her celestial cohort all her promise would be nothing but potential, and she no more useful a gadget than a coaster. But as the visible embodiment of the larger, unseen system, it was Melanie who riveted my attention.
Our maiden voyage to visit my wife’s relatives in Derry involved mostly highways (Melanie cutely called them “motorways”) and rural routes, so the system kept silent for long stretches. From time to time, however, Melanie’s surprisingly sultry voice would issue from the device, dispensing pearls such as, “In half a mile, turn right, then take the second left.” (Or our favorite: “Keep left, then—keep left.”) My wife joked about me having an affair with her, and I’m forced to admit there was something oddly intimate, even kinky, about having an anonymous, disembodied female voice inside my car, telling me what to do next. At least, she suggested an absurdist short story: man falls for his GPS, the reader not to discover until the very end that the object of his obsession isn’t real. He composes sonnets, sends flowers and candies, all the usual romantic overtures. He becomes increasingly distraught by her silence. Has she received his impassioned offerings? Why won’t she respond? And then, at last, she does. “In two hundred yards, bear left, then go straight on.” He veers off the road and is lost.
We had joined the Covenant of the GPS in 2008, at the tail end of the decade in which the device exploded in popularity. A 1997 study projected that the worldwide GPS market would grow tenfold in the same span of years, from $1.5 billion in 1996 to $16.4 billion in 2006. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated a growth in civilian GPS users of 2 million per month, with the total number of users topping 40 million by year’s end. As of 2001, over 500 models of GPS receivers were commercially available (meaning, by my rough estimate, that we shared Melanie with approximately 80,000 people). In 2006, according to online clearinghouse yourNAV, the GPS market continued its “exponential” rise, doubling during the course of the year. As of 2007, the most current year for which information was available to me, the online Buyer’s Guide from GPS World listed 232 manufacturers of GPS technology, offering over 100 categories and subcategories of GPS products and accessories. These range from the obvious (antennae, graphical interfaces) to the specialized (sonar, infrared) to the compound and polysyllabic (dataloggers, chartplotters) to the just plain bizarre (bar-code scanners?). The confident assessment offered in 2006 by Chris Jones, CEO of GPS manufacturer Canalys, seems safe for the foreseeable future: “The market just keeps growing and growing.”
One night, in less than 30 minutes’ viewing on a single station, I counted four commercials—from Kia, Nissan, Honda, and Radio Shack—featuring GPS. Whether by chance or design, the screen of the device invariably centered within the larger screen of the television, glowing brightly inside the TV’s ambient glow. The effect was of a magnetic point drawing all light and attention toward it. In its commercial form, GPS became a carbon copy of itself, an axis organizing its surroundings into satellites floating on its periphery.
I thought of the word “television,” the roots of which I had recently explained to my daughter: far sight. Farsighted, as in the Who song: I can see for miles. I thought: if only.
I’m told GPS receivers have replaced stereos as the equipment most frequently stolen from cars.
Melanie mesmerized. I confess that as the trip wore on I began to pay less attention to the actual road than to the hovering blue caret that represented our spectral selves’ progress. The juxtaposition was disturbing: cruising along at sixty miles an hour, creeping along on the four-inch-square screen. Or actually, come to think of it, even the impression of movement was illusory: the pixilated roads scrolled steadily backward (downward), pivoting and wobbling periodically to reorient us through a turn, while our shimmering triangle stayed fixed in the screen’s lower third. Melanie made me, I admit with some shame, lazy, inattentive, not only to our natural surroundings but to my responsibility, as alleged operator of our motor vehicle, to know where in the hell we were. Should al Qaeda operatives figure out a way to sow a bug into the GPS mainframe, I perceived, we would all be up shit’s creek.
Driving with Melanie, heeding her implacable directives, I was, really for the first time in my life, forcibly struck by the awesomeness of modern technology. When I say “struck,” I don’t mean impressed. More like nauseated. The longer I contemplated the tiny slate-gray box innocently suctioned to the windshield, the more I felt actually queasy, the way I used to get when I would read in the back seat of the family car, the way I now get on the Tilt-a-Whirl and Scrambler. Out of body, in twin senses: disconnected and used up.
I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it was because the device, deceptively slim as a well pruned wallet, secretly burst with technology: megabytes of maps and menus, all retrievable via a tap of the screen. Looking Melanie in the flat, unblinking eye, you doubted there was anything short of resurrecting the dead that human ingenuity could not somehow contrive to do.
As I think about it, though, I believe what I found most unsettling about Melanie was the very power that provided not only her commercial appeal but her raison d’être: the power she possessed of knowing precisely where we were. Uncannily so: as our car edged to the intersection of East End and Waverley or passed beneath the Parkway West overpass, our hyperselves mirrored the movement, the timing, in a way I found creepily, even obscenely, tactile. I remember how I used to laugh when I’d see signs along the highway reading “speed enforced from aircraft.” The feeble attempt to compel adherence to a brittle social compact by playing on speeders’ base paranoia had always struck me as pathetic. But now, sensing the satellites above my head, knowing that through Melanie’s insouciant circuits they could pinpoint my position at any time, I was granted an inkling of what it must have felt like to be a motorist, a citizen, during the height of the Cold War. Like most people, I’ve watched my share of fifties scifi films—The Thing, Invaders from Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers—and what strikes you most about them is their loony insistence that the invisible alien not only is there but must be there by virtue of its very invisibility. A self-fulfilling, totalitarian prophecy now fulfilled by the science (and fiction) of our own time.
“Keep watching the skies!” newspaperman Scotty famously warns the nation at the end of The Thing. It sounded like good advice then; it sounds even better now. But the problem is, keep watching the skies for what?
My gut reaction to Melanie was not, by the way, so far off. Like many technologies now enjoyed by the civilian population, global positioning originally developed for military applications. The choreographed choir of earth-looping satellites that guides you to Grandma’s is the same that escorts ICBMs to their doomed targets.
The roots of GPS lie in the 1960s, when the U.S. Navy and Air Force developed separate prototypes of the current system to steer submarine-based ballistic missiles. In 1973, under the name NAVSTAR, the twin systems merged. Today, operating out of the GPS Master Control Station near Colorado Springs, with subsidiary, fully automated stations in Hawaii, Kwajalein, Diego Garcia, and Ascension Island, the U.S. Air Force ensures the system’s functioning by downloading and uploading satellite data. Its civilian applications notwithstanding, GPS remains first and foremost a property and priority of the U.S. military. Before May 2, 2000, an intentional error hid in the code to prevent unauthorized users from honing in too precisely on potential targets. Today, to safeguard the military component of the system, the satellites transmit a dual signal, one public and the other encrypted. The satellites themselves, in the meantime, are manufactured by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, currently among the largest contractors for the U.S. military and responsible not only for weapons satellites but for the total machinery of war: bombers, fighter jets, attack helicopters, aircraft carriers, and short-range as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Even the system’s opening to the public hearkens back to the close of the Cold War. GPS was first approved for civilian use by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, after Soviet fighters downed Korean Airlines Flight 007 when it wandered into Soviet airspace. In the same year, Reagan infamously unveiled his plan to fund the Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed “Star Wars” by its detractors), a futuristic iteration of GPS that would have employed satellites and missile-tracking software to shield the United States from an incoming squadron of Soviet warheads. When not dreaming of extending U.S. military dominance into outer space, the Reagan administration busily put weapons technology to use on the ground. Additional escapades during the decade included the covert sale of arms to Iran in exchange for hostages, the building of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s arsenal to back his war against Iran, and the support and training of the Mujahedeen to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. From these scattered seeds our own decade has reaped the whirlwind: the rise of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the invasion of Iraq on the pretext of the very WMD we helped that country assemble, and the looming threat of war against a recalcitrant and supposedly WMD-seeking Iran. During the 2008 presidential race, Republican candidate John McCain called for a revival of the SDI “missile shield” to protect Europe from any Iranian nuclear threat that might materialize in the future. We look to GPS to locate us in a world rendered desolate by the system’s own architects.
War restructures the globe: it displaces populations, shifts capitals, redraws national boundaries. More generally, in its modern, chronic mode it moves the very ground beneath our feet, making us all uncertain, unstable. At least once a week I have to reassure my children that the war won’t come here. I have no idea if I’m telling the truth.
The hijacked planes that took down the Twin Towers were guided by GPS. Short of contacting air traffic control—a clear impossibility—there was no other way.
We were in Mel’s World, and what a weird world it was. Tiny, yes, and featureless, and flat. Brown and gray and yellow roads angled off in every direction, twisting like parade streamers, but they lacked mass, contour, gravity, everything we use to ground our bodies in space. I would liken it to a video game—that would be the obvious analogy—but actually it wanted all of the features that make video games resemble reality. Like incentive, risk, anticipation, surprise. I felt more alive playing Ms. Pac-Man in the back corner of a smoky bowling alley, dodging Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Sue, than I did tootling down Melanie’s miniature motorway.
Melanie, it dawned on me as we dove deeper into our drive, simply saw the world differently than we did. For her, reality was glimpsed through a keyhole, the only thing that mattered being the planar square inch that lay ahead. Any map, of course, is artificial—but at least conventional maps approximate the experience of human space: scale, context, dimension, relationship. Too, physical maps provide ancillary pleasures: the crinkling as you wrestle them open, the flap of air as you snap them flat, the corner poking your forearm as your passenger turns them like a second steering wheel, searching for the next rest stop. And who could forget AAA TripTiks? So hopeful, so generous, your entire journey plotted into manageable, fold-out slices.
Melanie, by contrast, was shockingly stingy. With her, life boiled down to two interdependent variables: the road, and me.
Don’t tell any of this to my students, though. They emerged into Melanie’s world of instantaneous if incorporeal positioning, and they can’t imagine any other way.
And so, when they exit my classroom and immediately flip their cell phones to their ears, they commence what to my 44-year-old sensibility seems, in more ways than one, an utterly pedestrian play-by-play:
“Yeah, I just left class. Uh-huh. I’m walking down the hall. Yeah, I’m in the cafeteria now. . . .”
I marvel less at the banality of their discourse than at their desire to be located at every moment of their lives. Or perhaps the two are inseparable: when you talk on the phone fourteen hours a day, what else can you talk about except your relative, ephemeral position? By contrast, I spend most of my time trying not to be found: sealing my office door, screening calls via the answering machine and, latterly, the small miracle of caller ID. My own kids get a kick out of me impersonating the answering machine message, fooling the automated dialer into disconnecting before a live telemarketer picks up. A small part of this wariness derives from my sense that no one could possibly find my moment-by-moment activities all that interesting. But by far the greater part comes from a simple desire to be left alone.
My students’ condition, I have decided, deserves a clinical diagnosis, so I have coined one: locomania, the morbid obsession with place. That is to say, my students suffer from an unhealthy imbalance in their locomotive.
A college friend, Brad, who founded a business to help new graduates land their first job (and who, perhaps as an occupational hazard, has become a slavish convert to the BlackBerry), tells me that the Millennial Generation calls their parents four to six times per day. When we were in college we averaged a call a week on the hall’s single rotary pay phone, dialing collect and tugging the resistant metal cord into the broom closet for privacy. No one ever began a conversation with “Where are you?” There was only one place you could possibly be.
I owned a cell phone only once, for the several months just before my second child’s birth. For emergencies and labor’s unpredictable onset. As it turned out, my wife’s water broke at midnight, her frank, rounded form mere inches from mine. I had come to love that body, its startling curves and contours, and excited as I felt at the birth, I knew I would miss it. I touched the moist covers, giddily inhaled their earthy-sweet smell, while my wife called her mom to babysit our four-year-old daughter. When Grandma Claudie arrived, we drove to the hospital. There my wife gave birth to our son. A month later, no further use for the thing having presented itself in the meantime, I threw the cell phone in the garbage.
The products of my wife’s two pregnancies, now ages nine and five, showed surprisingly little interest in Melanie. Lilly read, Jonah napped. To them, I suppose, she didn’t seem all that miraculous, just another glowing gift from the gods. Jonah can already operate the DVD remote nearly as fluently as I can. Both he and Lilly are drawn to video screens as if they were indeed altars, something to be invested with significance far beyond their actual utility. For the present, the parental controls on our home PC keep the mysteries of the internet closed to them. Having received more than my share of advertisements for porno flicks and penis-enlargement ointments despite our firewall and spam filter, however, I dread the thought of what my babies will meet once the curtain is lifted, what virtual predator may then turn horribly real.
The trio of GPS, cell phone, and internet may be the central icons of a technocultural revolution that has radically restructured not only our systems of communication but our sense of public and private, space and place. The roots of that revolution, however, are not recent. In fact, looked at from a certain perspective, they coincide with another revolution, the one that gave birth to the United States.
In The Letters of the Republic (1990), Michael Warner traces the rise of the modern nation-state not only to new forms of political consciousness but to new relationships to technology—in this case, print technology. Warner’s argument is that though the printing press had existed for hundreds of years prior to the revolutionary era, “the act of reading performed by the individual citizen” was “redetermined” during the course of the eighteenth century. Whereas previously readers had positioned themselves in relation to, at most, a single other person—the author—now it became “possible to imagine oneself, in the act of reading, becoming part of an arena of the national people,” to envision oneself scanning pages along with thousands of distant but nonetheless kindred others. “No longer a technology of privacy,” Warner writes, “letters [had] become a technology of publicity.” In this sense, the period’s soaring rates of literacy and burgeoning market in pamphlets and broadsides reflect a larger structural transformation: print had not simply gone public but had come to constitute the public. To put this another way, the republic itself (res publica, public thing or thing of the public) took shape through the mediated, displaced form of embodiment that is public-ation.
The quintessential symbol of print culture in the new nation had to be the newspaper, which (prior to the internet) outstripped all other forms of print technology. These days, newsprint-and-ink may seem stodgy and quaint, hardly a “technology” at all. But in its heyday, this relic shifted the individual’s relationship to the space he or she inhabited in ways every bit as profound as the internet does today. Most obviously, the dailies connected each person to a much wider world of information than anyone could acquire through firsthand experience, opening to public inspection the most private data about fellow citizens, elected officials, and the nation-state itself. But more subtly, newspapers formed the perfect vehicle for projecting oneself into the virtual public sphere about which one read, into a nationwide, phantom corps of informed reader-citizens. You could be pretty sure of someone in Philly—a lot of someones—reading the same article, maybe even at the same time, as you in New York or New Orleans. As with the internet, the cell phone, and GPS, the newspaper formed a technological interface that connected you, if only imaginatively, to other, invisible selves.
As one might imagine, this kind of out-of-body experience both turned people on and freaked them out. Thus it is that Warner’s representative man, Benjamin Franklin, newspaper editor and public persona extraordinaire, guarded his privacy as ferociously as he broadcast it, writing his autobiography, for example, in the form of a private letter to his son, never published in his lifetime. An Enlightenment-era celebrity, as evasive of the spotlight as he was avid for it.
Or take one of my favorite authors, Henry David Thoreau, who, three-quarters of a century after the Revolution, turned his thought to the triad of technologies that in his own day had most transformed the experience of place. Of that distance-gobbling monster, the locomotive, he griped in his most famous work, Walden (1854): “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Of the telegraph, he groused: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” And of the newspaper, he grumbled: “To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” Summing up his caustic assessment of his era’s technology, he wrote: “As with our colleges, so with a hundred ‘modern improvements’; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.”
My students, the pretty toys their cell phones have become clutched in their hands, took offense at Thoreau’s indictment. They thought he was a jackass. One woman in particular, the editor of the college newspaper, bristled when she discovered that Thoreau, far from being as newspaper-averse as he claimed, read them voraciously and relied on them to advertise his services as lecturer and surveyor (the professions by which, wanting a bestseller, he kept body if not soul together). How, she demanded, could he get away with such outrageous accusations—such lies? She was incensed. He had not only insulted her chosen profession. He had violated its precepts by misrepresenting his position toward it.
I tried to talk to her about this, but I’m afraid I didn’t get very far. I suggested that Thoreau, as a satirist, might have been making extreme statements for a purpose—to “wake my neighbors up,” as he put it. (She wasn’t buying that. Like many modern readers of Walden, she had been conditioned to think of Thoreau as not having had neighbors, and she wasn’t convinced by the essay I showed her that called Walden Pond “less Thoreau’s home than his home page,” a “virtual space” painstakingly engineered for maximum visibility.) Trying for something closer to home, I asked her to think about how editorials sometimes take liberties with the truth, strictly speaking, to make a point. Maybe, I suggested, she could think of Thoreau in that way—as an editorialist, less interested in telling his life than in taking a position on it.
Thinking back over that failed conversation, I suspect that my fault lay in being too teacherly, too academic. I might have made more headway if I’d simply reminded her that classic authors are people too, and that like the rest of us, Thoreau both feared and felt modern technology’s irresistible tug. Perhaps, to humanize Thoreau, I would have been better advised to position him in relation to machines.
Being an academic, however, I can hardly resist theorizing my students’ locomania. At times I think it simple opportunism: new technologies inspire (or inflict) new capabilities. Thoreau understood this, writing of his perennial goad and nemesis, the railroad: “The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?” New technologies, Thoreau perceived, call for new positionings.
A second thought, however, succeeds the first: perhaps it is not simply because they can find each other at any time that my students do. Perhaps something more fundamental, not merely formal or functional, makes them so fervent for the perpetual, veridical experience of place. The possibilities are tempting: perhaps it is because so much in their lives is virtual that they feel the need for the occupation of space to be verifiable. Perhaps it is because they spend their days adrift among the dizzying dislocations of hypertext linkages that they grope for what Thoreau called “a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality”—something to which they can say, “This is, and no mistake.” Those of us who teach freshman composition have long lamented that the internet must be doing something to our students’ minds, encouraging a stone-skipping mental rhythm to match its own headlong tempo. But could it be that the internet has diffused not only our students’ brains but their bodies?
Could it be that these ghosts of persons long to be reminded that they once had bodies?
Or could it be, on the outer reaches of possibility, the fact that my students became adults in the shadow of September 11 that makes them so fearful of losing their place? The freshmen I struggle valiantly to teach to read with depth and delight were ten when the Towers fell. With each passing year they will become younger and younger. For most, that day represented their first experience of things falling desperately out of place. They remember the snapshots of lost loved ones, the mosaic of the missing. Perhaps their need to know where everyone is reflects their formative experience of knowing where no one was.
Collective tragedy resolves into reconstructed location. Trauma freezes not only time but space. It is doubtless because where we were that day matters so little that we recall it so fiercely. In my case, I sat preparing for class the morning the planes hit. Pat, a colleague who has since moved on to another institution, crossed the hall to ask whether I’d heard what Howard Stern had said, whether I believed it. Misunderstanding, I told her I’d believe both anything and nothing coming from him. We turned on the radio and listened as the story unfolded. Sometime during the next half hour my wife called from work, frantic, having heard only that the nation was under attack. Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 went down, rests about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. I reassured her as best I could over the phone. Then I went to class and tried to convince a roomful of non-majors that literature still mattered. Had I thought of it, I might have used as my text the words of Thoreau’s mentor: “The things we now esteem fixed shall, one by one, detach themselves like ripe fruit from our experience, and fall.”
We remember where we were when the Towers fell. But the Towers having fallen, do we remember where we are?
As our journey wore on, it became increasingly evident that Melanie, for all her considerable charm and charisma, really didn’t have a clue. For one thing, her databanks proved spotty: from time to time she rechristened lanes, conjured nonexistent highways, snubbed real ones. And her awareness of life off road was nil. When we entered a shopping mall to pick up my wife’s pills, Melanie fell silent, her console registering a miniature expanse of blank brown space as innocent of inscription as a pre-Lewis and Clark map of the West. Landmarks remained as foreign to her experience as the land itself had been to theirs.
I suppose I could have lived with this; I don’t expect everyone and everything to share my perspective. But as it turned out, it was not simply the gaps in her programmed reservoir that made Melanie such a negligent and unreliable guide. Her myopia, it proved, made her coldly oblivious to, even contemptuous of, the human driver she presumed to assist. For instance, nearing the obvious left turn that would take us past the lake and crescent beach of Keystone State Park, she advised us to “bear left.” Had we not made the turn many times before, we probably would have missed it. Minutes later, she made the same error in reverse. A paltry bend in the winding country road she upgraded to a right turn, so that had we been truly lost, we would have been baffled by the want of the turn we were meant to make.
Naturally, this got me to wondering how we Homo sapiens tell a turn from a bear, a bear from a bend. What spatial algorithm do we apply to the grid and circuits we’ve laid over the land? But at the same time, organism that I was, I couldn’t help feeling I was right, Melanie-mechanism wrong. The centrifugal tow of my torso knew more than any machine: a turn is a turn, and there’s no two ways about it.
The final straw turned out to be Melanie’s insistence, as we pulled into the asphalt driveway of my relatives-in-law’s modest two-story home, that we were still a solid seven-tenths of a mile from our goal. Had the evidence of our senses not shown us her mistake, might we not have kept on down the road? Might we not have feared that the house itself—the most evidently stable thing in this whole enterprise—had gone missing?
Thoreau knew no satellite greater than the earth, a hurtling meteor transmuted to the perfect emblem of the spirit’s flight: “the very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit.” Still he managed to sound Walden Pond to a degree of accuracy that has not been surpassed. Emerson, too, had conceived such a missile earth, a “wild balloon” rocketing toward an unfathomable end. All our institutions, he wrote, rest on a “mass of unknown materials and solidity, red-hot or white-hot perhaps at the core, which rounds off to an almost perfect sphericity, and lies floating in soft air, and goes spinning away.... at a rate of thousands of miles the hour, [one] knows not whither—a bit of bullet, now glimmering, now darkling through a small cubic space on the edge of an unimaginable pit of emptiness.” Absent space signals, the twain had tuned in to a deeper frequency: the harmonic correspondence between their own momentary flesh, and the fleeting ground beneath their feet.
Musing on Melanie, her quirks and capacities, suggests a familiar scene: showdown at the Nokia Corral. Twin sisters have planned to meet at Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. The younger (by six minutes) has flown in from Long Beach, California for a summertime visit. The elder, who has remained local, raises her cell phone to an ear permanently crimped by the extra-tight uterine squeeze and places a call. The West Coaster, in the parking lot, begins the half-mile trek toward the native, who, loitering in kiddie land, sets out in the absent other’s direction. The two stroll the looping trails in tree-swathed sunlight, pass (respectively) the kettle corn stand and arcade, all the while chattering away. Her sister’s voice laughing in her ear, the Californian rounds the bumper cars, their current a tinny tang on tongue and palate. Her wombmate, abreast the stage where the bad knock-offs of Disney musicals play, fills her lungs with the lush fragrance of deep-fried funnel cakes. The Ferris Wheel intervenes. Then, at last, the two spot each other, wave enthusiastically—and continue their conversation. Only when they are within arm’s reach do they sheathe their weapons; certainly they hug. They are thrilled to see each other in the flesh, but those last few moments of long-distance love (“long-distance,” obviously, being a relative term) were too precious to spare.
How many miles, I wonder, did those signals have to travel, bend, rebound so these two lovers, united from before birth yet falling progressively apart for the forty years thereafter, could close a fifty-foot gap still wrapped in mediated embrace?
I am no more a Luddite than Thoreau (I have my GPS, don’t I?). But I do startle at the tricks of technology, how it fixes and dislocates us, shows us the way while making us lose our place.
Toying with Melanie on the drive home, trying to trip her up, I took several turns she hadn’t anticipated. She directed me to exit the motorway and remain on Penn Avenue, one of Pittsburgh’s main arteries, and then turn left onto my home street. A more direct route but, I knew, a longer one due to traffic and stoplights. At first, Melanie appeared unfazed by the ad hoc turns I took, recalculating my vector each time and offering what would be the next logical move under the altered circumstances. Toward the end, though, she seemed to become a bit flustered—or even exasperated—by my perverse deviations from plan, as she insisted I turn right when our home lay directly to the left. The stress of her job, shuttling strangers across a landscape made alien by the same power that had given her birth, must have been taking its toll.
Once I had made the final turn, however, she recovered her composure. Acting as if nothing had happened, showing not the slightest discomfiture at her gaffe, she announced that we were almost there. Though we knew where we were, it was still gratifying to hear Melanie’s silky voice: “You have reached your destination.”
And so we had.
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