GPS, AI and TripAdvisor are killing our Inner Explorer. And that’s not healthy.
Humans are natural explorers by definition. It is in our DNA, and part of our brain’s operating system: we are innately, constantly curious about what lies around the corner and over the hill in our search for food, shelter and the survival of our species. Proof of this is that we started as a nomadic animal, following the footsteps of the animals we hunted for food, or the ripening patterns of trees. Eventually we started controlling our food production within one place through animal husbandry and agriculture, managing to stay put. However our nomadic instinct is still there: the urge to get up and move, to not be content, even if that means invading the country next door. And we are physically built to be a machine that moves: with strong, long legs and an upright posture that allows us to travel very long distances. It is believed that millions of years ago we left Africa in search of a better environment, and in many ways we haven’t stopped moving since — whether it meant inhabiting the next continent over, or thinking of colonizing the next inhabitable planet in our solar system.
My childhood holidays were some of the best of my life. My parents, both civil servants, were not rich enough to take us to fancy places far away, but they did know how to make good use of a car and always wanted to push the boundaries of how far we can drive within a few days time, seeing as many places as possible. They were gas tank junkies, modern-day nomads, ignoring the continuous chatter of “are we there yet” coming from the back seat, and pressing on the gas to reach the next destination on the journey. A journey for which low-resolution paper maps were the only guide, therefore leaving the detail open to interpretation and resulting in some heated debates in the car, and occasional comments of the sort: “last time we followed your advice, we ended up 50 miles in the wrong direction” or my favourite “surely the map is wrong”. As family cohesion was often two wrong turns away from breaking down, we all did our best to chip in — diligently looking out for signs on the road, taking over the “map keeper” role when the current map keeper (usually my mom) had been placed on temporary probation, and keeping track of the time vs. mileage calculation.
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20 years on, the arrival of GPS may have helped keep Social Services away from my family, but we were now reduced to automatons obeying orders, a far cry from the proud, victorious desert nomads that risked all or nothing, the last reserves of gas, patience and my mom’s spinach pie to make it to the next oasis. There would never be a repeat of my childhood holidays, when we really were in danger of being stranded in the middle of nowhere, when we needed full teamwork in order to find the way out, through nail-biting cliff drops in Crete and Mafia-torn neighbourhoods in Naples. Those were real adventures, because they had the element of the unexpected and we were living every single moment, not confined in the prison of our smartphones. I remember vividly more than a few times when my parents loved to just take the car and “follow the road” as they would say, going on full exploration mode. And then it would suddenly happen, the highlight of our entire vacation: the most breathtaking view of the ocean from the top of a mountain. My father loved to just stop the car sometimes in the middle of nowhere and just walk out, explore and take in the landscape.
I was only a few years old when we were on one of these random escapades on an island holiday. We had been driving all day, the family was tired and irritated, the sun was starting to go down, and we weren’t sure how far we were from the next town that would hopefully be our final destination. As if by some instinct, we stopped the car for a much-needed short leg stretch and breath of fresh air. It was a nice wide bend on the road, with plenty of room to park the car, and a nice view of nearby hills and faraway villages. Afternoon was lazily starting to turn into evening, with only just a slight breeze to disturb the silence. Our eyes scanned the horizon, until someone spotted a dark green area in the distance, up on a hill, vividly standing out against the arid beige and yellow of the landscape. It was the biggest, greenest grove of mulberry trees we had ever seen. Like pilgrims who had seen a miracle, not yet believing, we started climbing up the hill. As we got closer, the wind got much stronger and we could hear the dark, big fleshy leaves of the trees flapping against each other like birds’ wings. Holding on to the first trunk, we looked up at the juicy supersized fruit ripening in the heat of the summer, filling the air with their scent. Down on our feet, bright blue, black and scarlet explosions were staining the slippery marble stones. We reached out to the branches in an eating frenzy, my clothes soon becoming stained with mulberry blood. I remember my mother’s purple-stained teeth as she smiled with the gratitude of someone at the gates of paradise, or with the relief of an exhausted marathon runner. It was the smile of a victorious nomad. Like our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago in the African savannah, we had been driving around until we finally found our fruit tree.
As we all went into glycemic shock at about the same time, one of us pointed with surprise at the one thing we hadn’t noticed all along, over the other side of the hill. LOOK! Through the green leaves, in the far distance and over the horizon, a massive hot bright orange disk was sinking into the blue ocean below, about to violently collide with the water. It resembled a tinned half peach, with soft, syrupy edges that seemed to slowly undulate. As it slowly dipped towards the horizon it started turning into a bright, fiery red-orange, becoming even brighter against a backdrop that was turning darker and darker: first light blue, then purple, then an icy cold baby blue. Eventually the peach lost its fiery intensity and turned into a deep, ripe wine red, before getting even smaller and finally softening into a pink crescent shape, then a jellybean, then gone, forever. We huddled together and watched speechless for a few minutes before walking back towards the car. It was my first sunset.
The next generation of our family, me included, eventually succumbed to the temptation of researching our holidays to death, months before they even happened. This madness went beyond just hotel bookings and things to see. Every restaurant, every beach, had to be double checked on Trip Advisor or other rating site to ensure we won’t be disappointed, that everyone agrees and that there aren’t any vetoes, that there was adequate parking, things for the children to do, and so on. But most of all, to check that we hadn’t missed any of the main attractions. Attractions picked for us by AI algorithms using the ratings of strangers who we never met and would never meet. What does a 4.3 rating for this seaside taverna mean for a Dutch tourist in his 50s with three children? How does it compare to the equivalent for an American housewife just separated from her husband who is a fan of belly dancing and yoga? It’s OK, because eventually all these people’s ratings and opinions are averaged out into one big average score, which is much more reliable. Allowing us to become average tourists, following the average path, having an average experience that looks very much like that of others on the same journey. We have traded in our freedom of taking the wrong turn, our chance to have a unique personal experience, for the safety of living our holiday through the average recommendations of Google, Trip Advisor and YouTube. Might as well have stayed at home and experienced this in front of the laptop. It is not only the lack of surprise that diminished the value of our experience. Predictability meant that we now had a full plan for every hour of the day, which we needed to stick to, increasing expectations as well as anxiety. We often found ourselves unable to fully enjoy sights, either because the YouTube version was better, or because we were behind schedule on our way to the next milestone or attraction.
The poor nomads were unaware that, slowly but steadily, they had been driving themselves mad under the blistering sun. Lured like honeybees by the sweet taste of too much data, they had lost their focus, constantly running through their head new scenarios, but unable to make a decision. Soon they were going round in circles in all directions: confused, frustrated, stressed. Their faces looked tired and unhappy, painted with an abstract longing for something that they couldn’t define. They had forgotten what they were looking for. Tired and defeated, they felt hopeless although they had just arrived in the middle of the most beautiful oasis. “It’s a mistake! This oasis is not on our map!” They couldn’t register that their exploration was over, that it had been successful, that they were in fact, at their destination. They had forgotten that exploration is not something that takes place in their head, but in space and time, and most of all, in their hearts.
Having a plan is good. But we are increasingly spending our present in planning for our future. If you think it might rain, take an umbrella. But maintain your freedom to change your mind. A plan that was made yesterday may not be relevant today. Live free. Live without guilt or regret. Listen to the nomad inside. Life is about the journey, not the GPS.
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GPS, AI and TripAdvisor are killing our inner explorer. And that’s not healthy. was originally published in Becoming Human: Artificial Intelligence Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.