Missing maps and the fragility of digital information

Traditional methods come through when connected systems fail.

A couple of months ago, I had a remarkable demonstration of the fragility of the “always on” connected mindset. I was on my way to the wonderful Hunewill Ranch for Francisco Dao’s 50 Kings Cattle Drive (a remarkable event that deserves a post all its own.) Hunewill Ranch is on the far side of the Sierra Nevada, near Mono Lake, and I settled in for a long but uneventful drive, guided by Google Maps on my Android phone.

It was a beautiful late spring day towards the end of May, hot even, so the last thing I was thinking about was the possibility that Sierra passes might still be closed. So I was quite surprised to find a sign that the road ahead was closed in 5 miles. I’d have to turn around and retrace my path for over 80 miles.

Now right away, I felt rather betrayed by Google Maps. (Bing Maps was no better.) After all, if the relatively small number of Sierra passes are closed for extended periods of time, how hard would it be to detect that fact and automatically deliver only a working route? Instead, Google provided only a small disclaimer (and one that appears only just before the failed step in the route), that the road ahead “might” be closed. Unless I read the entire list of directions carefully, I wouldn’t see the warning till just about the point where I saw it on a road sign!

(Small advice here to governments: create a web service or even a twitter service that announces when you close and lock the gates to mountain passes, and feed it to mapping services, so they don’t all have to do the work of figuring out whether or not a pass is actually closed. But mapping services like Google or Bing could also figure this out on their own, by scraping websites where closures are announced, or even noticing from GPS traces that no cars pass through at a particular point in the year. Given the small number of mountain passes, this would seem to be a simple and much appreciated investment of time and effort.)

It got worse. Now I had to find another way through the Sierra. Unlike on a PC, where you can drag handles on the map to choose an alternate route, on the phone there really are no affordances for alternate routes. You can’t say, for example, “Bridgeport CA via Highway 50” in the search bar (which would seem like a simple and elegant way to express a route preference.) Instead, I had to pick a destination partway to my destination, and get a route to there.

Because it was very difficult to get the big picture on the phone’s small screen, I thought to pick up a paper map at a gas station. To my dismay, the spinner racks were empty, with only a few maps of other parts of the state available. I immediately regretted throwing away my paper maps in a cleaning binge a few years back – I can easily imagine futures in which they will be worth their weight in gold.

I was back to my phone’s tiny screen. Highway 50, the main route up through the Sierra, which goes to South Lake Tahoe, must surely be open, I thought. So I set my destination as South Lake Tahoe and tried again. It was tough to tell if the route I was taking went through any high passes, but it looked OK, despite the warning, once again, that the road ahead might be closed. Unfortunately, 90 minutes later, I came to another “pass closed” sign, and had to retrace my steps once again).

Finally, I got low enough in the foothills to make it over to Highway 50 and then over the mountains. (I should note that the route on which I eventually succeeded also still bore a warning that the road ahead might be closed.)

That wasn’t the end of my troubles. On the far side of the mountains, my Maps app suddenly quit. I was out of cell range, and couldn’t refresh the directions. I was back to a vague sense of where I was headed, and the kindness of strangers, as in “the old days.” Fortunately, those tried and true methods delivered me to my destination, late by four hours but glad of the thought-provoking experience.

P.S. In one final adventure (what Chesterton once so delightfully defined as “inconvenience properly regarded”), I stopped for gas, only to find the pump empty.”They’ll be by in the next day or two,” the proprietor told me. The same was true at the next two stations. I was running on fumes by the time I got to Bridgeport, a full tank, and a return to cell service.

It was all a good reminder of the fragility of some of our systems. They will get better over time, to be sure. But even those expected improvements won’t ensure that there isn’t a catastrophic loss of service at some inconvenient time. It’s on my to-do list to get a comprehensive set of paper maps, just in case.

What other systems do we depend on that we take for granted? Water, power, food top the list.

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