The satnav is my shepherd

So this happened recently.

For the TL;DR crowd: an elderly couple got into a car in Rio, thought they were going to the beach, put in the address and the satnav they were using led them to a neighbourhood that had a street by the same name as the one they were looking for. Except this neighbourhood was controlled by a violent drug gang, that shot the woman and rifle butted the man. The woman later died.

Some discussion has emerged about the satnav company being “responsible” for leading these people to the wrong place. If so, what does that mean? If companies are now responsible for the information they give people and the way that information is used, what’s the logical end? Will there come a time of digital ghettoisation, when Google Maps and satnavs send an alert when you stray over a certain digital border, saying “you’re in a bad neighbourhood!” Will there be entire areas that are considered by the corporate entities that run the internet to be “the wrong side of the tracks”? Will real time data sets of crime statistics push and nudge these borders around dynamically throughout every day? Will the borders of the “bad areas” shift at night? What the fuck is a “bad area” anyway?

This seems ridiculous and misguided, but the history of shitty decisions by internet companies makes me regularly hold the bridge of my nose and close my eyes for a moment.

Perhaps a better question to ask is not one of responsibility, but one of geography.

Satnav means that you know where you’re going. You don’t have to ask anyone for directions. You just send your wish out into the ether by typing it in a little box, and *ping*, down comes a magical treasure map that leads you were you need to go. The satnav does its job. If you’re not specific enough, or you don’t know you’ve made a mistake, or there’s some kind of clash because two places have the same name, or or or, then you’re on your own and in the hands of human error (which is the reason satnav was invented in the first place).

However, if forced to stop at a petrol station and find someone to ask, they’ll give you nuanced, localised information such as “There’s a place with the same name that’s a bad fucking neighbourhood, avoid that place.” This is because, of course, Google Maps and satnav do not contain all knowledge.

We assume they do. We put our faith in these devices and services, whisper an incantation and hope our prayer is heard and wish granted in the way we need and expect. The answer is always delivered with a kind of “trust me, I’m a TomTom” certainty that we just accept it at face value. It’s your own personal oracle on the dashboard temple. You will be guided by a loving force with your best interests in mind.

But sometimes, as we have seen, the oracle leads you to your death. At those time the grime of human frailty comes peeking through the chromed techno surface, and this faith – and it is faith! – that runs Uber and guides us around cities and is in every taxi these days seems silly, misplaced, childish; these services don’t have all the answers, even though they are so good at looking like they do.

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