Hearing Voices

It happened to me first while on vacation earlier this summer. I was hoping the directions to the Fresno, Calif., airport being given to me on my smartphone were accurate, as I was without an old-fashioned paper road map. A female voice — not Siri, but perhaps her slightly-less-well-off cousin — was telling me to go straight, then turn left after 10.2 miles (or something like that). Having no familiarity with where I was whatsoever made me uncomfortable to begin with, and that uneasiness was being compounded by reliance on technology I’d never used.

As I drove on toward what I hoped would be a timely arrival at the airport (a moot point, as the flight was eventually canceled, and the whole McGaughey clan rerouted to Sin City), I couldn’t help but think about how, despite my edginess about the smartphone directions, the voice telling me where to go was always calm and polite. I couldn’t help but wonder: What if I somehow made a wrong turn? Would I at least receive some kind of gentle scolding? (“You MISSED your turn. Please turn around, then make a right in .6 miles.”) Or, perhaps more fitting: “Are you an IDIOT? You missed the *!&@ turn. Turn around and then make a right in .6 miles, you total moron.”

Of course, smartphones don’t do this, though I’d love it if they did. Somehow, a polite correction of a driving mistake doesn’t seem appropriate sometimes. Becca did point out to me, however. that she thinks there are some devices with different voices and/or accents available, which would be pretty snazzy. She then had a great idea for what I think would be a pretty popular app — Google Maps with directions provided by a voice with a North Dakota accent. I’d love to have Marge Gunderson (the famed “Fargo” police officer) telling me how to get somewhere, and perhaps even telling me the best communities and restaurants for a good hot dish along the way.

As it turned out, the smartphone did indeed get me to the airport perfectly, but it wouldn’t take me long to learn these things aren’t always foolproof. My dad and I learned this last week in Kansas City, when we were driving in circle after circle over the course of a dozen-block-or-so radius in an increasingly desperate attempt to find the theater in which “The Smurfs 2” was playing. (In retrospect, I wish I had been in possession of a smartphone that said, “‘The Smurfs 2’? Are you kidding me? Let me direct you to a different theater entirely.”)

As Dad — who was driving — and I continued to not find the theater (and Grace and Zachary asked repeatedly when we were going to get there) — we tried to remain unflustered, while Dad stoically continued to believe in the technology we were utilizing. Sure enough, we eventually found the place — it was obscured to some extent by another building in front of it, but still visible enough that we should have spotted it and not forced the phone to continually reroute us back in the proper direction (a heavy sigh from its speaker would have been ideal here).

Realizing the phone had been right all along, I decided I would use it on the way home if needed. Sure enough, upon arriving in the Sioux City region, I became more concerned with finding a Starbucks and a bathroom and missed the turn for U.S. 75 that I’d more or less taken for granted. Eventually, I got off I-29 a couple of exits outside of the city and tried to have my phone set me straight. Alas … no service. I looked in vain for a South Dakota map in my car, and then proceeded to drive another few miles in the wrong direction. Later, though, I did get service, and my phone began steering us back toward a much-needed stop for ice cream in Le Mars. And boy, was I ready for a sweet — so much so, in fact, that in an attempt to follow my phone’s instruction to make a right on Highway 3, I turned a few feet too early and into a parking lot.

“Ryan, you idiot,” I said to myself.

“Dad, you’re NOT an idiot,” Grace shot back.

Great. Now I’d inadvertently given the kids a lesson in unnecessary self-deprecation. If only the phone could do it for me.