Replacement vs. Reinforcement

I came across an idea about how machines interact with people while watching some TV. They were joking about Sat-Nav devices and all the silly voices they can make when it occurred to me that Sat-Nav devices are indeed replacing our natural abilities to navigate and know where we are and how to move around in our urban areas. (Most of us have long since lost our ability to know where we are and how to get around in the wild)

This is an example of a device which replaces a natural talent so well, that we find we don’t need our mental functions any more. But of course the one great evil of this is that we no longer know how to operate without them, thus Sat-Nav will always be required by people who use Sat-Nav a lot. (forgetting of course people who couldn’t operate at all until Sat-Nav came into being)

Picture showing a set of microschips on the left, a nerve cell on the left.

So what’s the alternative to technological replacement? I think one idea is technological reinforcement; the idea that the best technology improves the human operator through it’s use. Take Wikipedia; the fear is that no one will never need to remember anything and we’ll all forget to remember everything. But using Wikipedia seems to do the opposite, reinforcing information and making us more certain about some of the billions of facts we can hold in our heads. (but maybe it hasn’t been around long enough to show it’s effect)

So this got me thinking about what I would like a Sat-Nav device to do, to help me reinforce and hone my skills navigating the streets. Partly it could help by always stating the names of the roads when you’re in a local or frequently visited place. “Turn Left” is an instruction but “Turn Left at Washington Street” is educational and reinforcing if I take that route a lot. The information is certainly being presented at the right time for me to combine it with other sensory information so I can call it back up later. Another idea is to mention the absolute direction, North, South etc so we get a feel for the absolute direction we’re traveling in.

Of course none of this might work, so to test we could see how Sat-Nav devices effect people’s ability to judge medium and long distances. Most devices mention how many yards/meters it is until a junction so it’s already going into our heads and reinforcing something in there, but maybe we can’t process it because we don’t really have a sense of speed (in a car, I do on my bike of course). Maybe the brain just throws all the information away, but I find that hard to believe since brains are really good at learning to understand all sorts of data.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Replacement vs. Reinforcement

  1. I so rarely disagree. But today is the day, I suppose.

    Imagine three ways people navigate: Some have a map-in-their-head, some use chain-of-landmarks, and some simply follow-because-they-are-otherwise-hopeless.

    SatNav is a great boon to the latter two groups, since they don’t actually have a natural talent to replace (or reinforce)! Several family members of mine would be utterly hopeless without SatNav. Twenty years ago they *were* hopeless with mere maps (got some stories to prove it). They are not stupid, some are quite brilliant – geography is simply not their talent.

    Most of the people who fight with the SatNav are the map-in-their-head people. The ones who feel confident using dead-reckoning, who always know where North is. The subset that actually has such a talent.

    You and I find geography interesting. But others most definitely do not. They don’t want to now the names of the streets; they filter their information carefully (just like us), and they simply choose a different data stream.

  2. Ian – You might be right, but at the moment users are not given the opportunity to decide what kinds of extra information should be included in the data stream.

  3. This is always the first reason I use to explain why I don’t use GPS/Sat-Nav, so I completely agree with you. Though I think the devices would need more major and creative changes to reinforce/teach instead of replace.
    But cheesehead has a point — I’m a map-in-my-head guy.

  4. The google maps android navigation app does say “Turn Left at Washington Street”.

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