I am geographically dyslexic. I go up the elevator into my hotel room—and when I leave I invariably turn the wrong way to go back to the elevator. In building 10 at Microsoft I needed a guide to get me to and from the restroom after being lost multiple times! Then there was the time I spent 2 hours trying to follow the directions between Cupertino and Palo Alto. In fact I had never successfully driven in and out of my hometown of Boston until my husband could direct me on the cell phone. The only constant in my directional ability is that my gut instinct is always wrong—except when it isn’t because I know the route.

For people who have no sense of direction, north, south, east, and west have no meaning at all. The good new is that if I have very explicit instructions I can and do get around. I travel the world and generally show up where I’m supposed to be. (But my clients eventually figure out that I need instructions all the time forward and backward—I have no ability to reverse what I just drove!).

In the old days—before Mapquest et al—we would just call the client, get the instructions, and then change them from “go north” to “turn right and turn left.” That always worked. But since the advent of mapping technology I’ve been in more breakdowns than ever.

Mapping tools don’t work for geographically challenged people

Why is that? Mapping tools aren’t always right—in fact they are often wrong. Instructions on websites are often wrong or don’t consider where you are coming from. Highways change numbers—construction happens. But more than anything else mapping tools make people lazy. My secretaries all prefer to “map it” instead of calling and my clients all “map it” instead of describing what they do. Of course the steps are all written out so it saves the helper time—but the steps that are printed aren’t the steps I need to know.

For example, Take exit 27” is simple and clear; “Turn slightly east, turn slightly south for .01 miles” is not. “Take Route 42” is clear. Why? I can follow a route but instruction like “turn right on Main Street which merges into First Street and then turn left on Jones Street” gives me three transitions to pay attention to instead of 1 simple sign to follow. And no mapping tool says to you, “Don’t get confused by the Route 1A sign that comes up early, there is a later one too.” So since mapping tools have been invented I have gotten lost more often—and though it is unseemly—many have wondered if I needed a driver like Miss Daisy.

Last week Hugh, my business partner, bought me a new toy. He did the research, tested the interface, and then gave me the Nüvi GPS driven navigator. This is a fully portable device so I can take it anywhere, so Hugh said, “Try it out.” What follows is not a review —it is simply my first experiences living with an automated assistant.

My normal mode of driving is to have a Bluetooth earpiece to talk on the phone; otherwise I’m listening to music or I’m talking to someone in the car. Probably the most amazing experience of this automated assistant is the way it impacts relationship. If you want to hear the instructions you need to set the volume loud. But then the loud volume takes over the relationship space. I’m talking to Hugh as we try out the “device” and all of a sudden the voice of a woman (let’s call her Nadia) is rudely interrupting us to tell me to turn right in .9 miles and to turn right in .2 miles—with no consideration for what is going around her!

An automated navigator affects relationship

When I listen to music I’m in relationship to the music—any interruption is invading or reshaping the relationship space. So if a phone call comes in, I turn down the music. But a phone call beeps in my ear so I know it is coming and then I can turn down the music volume. Nadia just starts talking so I miss what she says. When I miss what she says I get confused, and if I’m confused I don’t know what to do.

All of a sudden I have too many inputs—the radio or phone, Nadia, the visuals from driving, my own internal map of where I’m going. It is cognitive overload – I pulled over and turned off Nadia’s voice. I seem to be able to have only one verbal relationship—it’s either music, Nadia, or a call. If I’m relating to Nadia I can’t do business or talk to my kids or clients. And I can’t choose because I can’t turn Nadia’s voice up and down easily.

Seeing where I’m going and hearing instructions are both part of the relationship

Now Nadia also displays her instructions in big letters on the front of the device. I noticed that she tells me there what direction I’m going but uses right and left to tell me what to do. Very smart! Maybe I can learn direction this way, I thought. Unfortunately I haven’t yet found a way for her show me the map of where I am—even if I didn’t ask for explicit instructions. If I turn off Nadia’s voice I can still see where I am going – but now if I’m lost Nadia can’t grab my attention when it is time to turn! She should know what I’m doing and yell out when I have to pay attention.

My experience with Nadia got more interesting when she and I went to Chicago—my original hometown. I had to go to my sister’s house in Oak Park, which was a different route than my usual one so I thought I’d try Nadia. I checked the written instructions against what Nadia planned and it was about the same so I felt like I’d be safe. But…

At home Nadia can mount on a holder in my car—but where in a rental car do you put it? Nadia speaks out of the back of her device but the map and the written instructions that tell me where I’m going (which I like) are on the front. I could look or I could listen but I couldn’t do both—I picked up the device to look and set it face down to listen—not so good for safety.

I was driving out of O’Hare airport and I missed the first turn. Now I was lost. In the past I would have pulled over to ask but this time I thought OK I’ll go with Nadia. After all this is Chicago, I can always call a family member. I start to follow – this was my first real use. I had no idea where I was, if I was going in the right direction, or if I was getting closer to my sister. The device displayed that I’d be to my sister’s house in 20 minutes but how did I know it was right—who is Nadia anyway and how does she know? So I started to follow instructions.

Alone and dependent it matters what the navigator thinks

Nadia doesn’t tell me where I’m going next—she just tells me what to do now. She warns me that a turn is coming up and then .2 miles away I learn it’s closer and then she warns me again to turn. So for every turn I hear from Nadia 3 times. I turned up the voice to loud – It was just me and Nadia. I couldn’t call or I’d miss an instruction. And I couldn’t say Nadia do you really know where we are? There were no assurances.

Now I was completely dependent. It was Nadia and me alone trying to get around in Chicago. And she was judgmental—I ended up feeling stupid every time she said “recalculating, recalculating” when I didn’t do what she said. You see Nadia didn’t see that Milwaukee Avenue was 6 lanes wide and that I had .2 miles to get to the left. I missed her instructions yet again—I didn’t want to hear her say “recalculating” and wondered if she would learn how to tell me in advance or if she would learn to yell out “Karen, turn now!”

I had already blown it twice. We were driving on a mini-highway by then and Nadia said “make a U-turn” so I did. I started to get the idea that I wasn’t going to understand what was going on and that I just needed to listen carefully and do whatever Nadia said. (I wondered how long I would keep this up before calling someone for help!) But I started to learn that there was a pattern of warnings and that I could look at the street names and make sure that I was on the one she talked about. That was a problem too because Nadia’s names and the street names didn’t always agree. I turned right anyway and she didn’t say “recalculating” so I must have done it correctly. I lost all self will and just did what Nadia said.

Like all relationships you learn their idiosyncrasies

The panic was starting to set in – I called Hugh and said I didn’t know what was going on. “This is what you have the device for—it has GPS—do what it says.” He then stayed on the phone for a while. I had learned that Nadia was quiet between turns so if I had to go 1.5-2 miles I could talk. When she talked again I said to Hugh wait a minute so I could listen, then went back to emoting! He said well just pull over and see where you are – and then unbelievably—Oak Park. Oak Park I said—that is my sister’s town. Nadia said I was 5 minutes away. So I hung up.

At this point I pulled into a Starbucks and my sister called. “Where are you?” I told her where I was and she said yes you are 5 minutes away – why didn’t you call for help? Well I said it either works or it doesn’t, we might as well find out. So I got back in the car—Nadia remembered where I was and took me to the right house.

Then on the way back – Nadia talked to me in the dark taking me safely to my hotel way across town. By now I learned to lean back and follow instructions and maybe then I won’t get lost. We’ll see.

Being guided at night to a strange place by a voice is comforting – if you’ve built up trust.