The UK loses its way in technology

Guest post: Chris Matyszczyk finds out that using GPS to navigate the roads across the pond could lead to confusion or even disaster.There are those who are in love with them.

Guest post: Chris Matyszczyk finds out that using GPS to navigate the roads across the pond could lead to confusion or even disaster.

There are those who are in love with them. And there are those who would dearly love it if every one of them was piled higher than Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers and set alight.

I am not talking about the English. Although, to be fair, they can be fairly polarizing on occasion. No, I am referring to those wonderful pieces of technology that tell you to take the next right, the next left and, for some, the next trip on a plane instead.

In a voice rather reminiscent of how I imagine Angelina Jolie talks first thing in the morning. “At the next intersection, Brad, turn right.”

The GPS system was originally used for military purposes (rather, I assume, like most of the cars produced in Detroit), yet we trust it now to be our front seat driver. A sort of Oliver North, South, East and West.

There is even a TV spot (Avis trying harder) currently airing that suggests a sexual relationship between the driver and his little lady helper on the dashboard. At least it is the driver who wants the sexual relationship and the little lady helper, who, by her silence, wishes he would, er, get lost.

So Americans seem to have come to terms with GPS. But American roads are, like the salaciousness of the average politician, relatively easy to navigate. Not so in England.

Paula Creely, of Redditch, Worcestershire (a place twinned with the little known American town of Xanax) was desperate to see her boyfriend. She had never, however, been to his house. So she borrowed his Sat-Nav (as they call it over there).

Her little lady helper (I will avoid the nauseatingly sexist question of why the voice of direction is always a woman) told her to go down a country lane. Night was falling, but Ms. Creely was excited. She was not even concerned when her path was blocked by an iron gate. She got out of her car and opened the gate. The sound of an upset train told her she was standing on railway tracks. She said: “I just had time to get out of the way as the train slammed into my car and carried on down the tracks.”

An isolated incident? This might describe England, but not its GPS issues. In March, the driver of a $200,000 Mercedes was only following orders and ended up in a river. Then there’s Joyce Cook of Surrey (basically quite a snooty place), who gets an ungodly number of gentleman callers. Her cottage is on the pinpoint of the zip code for her little village. The neighboring cottages are far apart. So when lazy drivers put her village’s zip code into their GPS devices, they just assume their destination is her house.

Says Mrs. Cook: “It seems that when people engage their Sat-Nav they switch off their brains. Even if they’ve got the delivery address marked clearly in front of them they sail past.”

But this is mere frippery when compared to the fun in the village of Hampton Loade

, Shropshire. (Large people with an accent like an expectorating gorilla.) SatNav tells drivers that it is possible to go down one of Hampton Loade’s country lanes and then cross the River Severn. Which it is. On foot.

But drivers have total faith in Big Sister. And they have continued down the lane in their hundreds to meet the footbridge. This is despite the fact that there is a large road sign at the beginning of the lane declaring that it is only a footbridge.

So the local council has had to find an analog solution to this digital disaster.

They have now put up a new road sign that says: WALK-ON FERRY ONLY (SAT-NAV ERROR). Which might be the first time that a road sign has referred to a technological device.

The new sign has worked. Just kidding.

Dave Browning, landlord of the River and Rail pub told the Daily Mail: "People just drive listening for the instructions to turn left or right, or just keep an eye on the Sat-Nav's screen, instead of looking at the road ahead and the signs around them."

Technology is so often seen as something that is supposed to be useful, something that makes all our lives easier. Yet perhaps we sometimes forget the potential it holds in every chip for absolute power over human beings.

Perhaps, therefore, we can send the English some foolproof American GPS systems. Perhaps we can send some Silicon Valley engineers to help them rearrange their quaint little roads into understandable square grids. Perhaps they will be so pleased with our technology that they will agree to become our 51st state.

What do you mean they already have?

Chris Matyszczyk has spent most of his career as an award-winning creative director in the advertising industry. He advises major global companies on marketing and creativity. Chris has also been a journalist, covering the Olympics, SuperBowl and other sporting events. He brings a non-techie's perspective to the tech world and a sharp wit to the rest of the world. Check out his "Pond Culture" blog.