But I’ve lately undergone a crisis of confidence: I find it hard to hit the road without consulting my phone. And while I’d like to think the recommended route (from Google, Waze, Hopstop, etc.) is just one influence among many—that I have other preferences their algorithms can’t perceive—I’m not too proud to confess that I trust the computer more than I trust myself. The habits, hubris, and quirky predilections that once manipulated my movements are being replaced by the judgments of artificial intelligence.
In this I’m not alone. The rise in mobile navigation technology has, in just a few years, transformed the way we get around cities. In 2011, 35 percent of Americans had smartphones; by 2013, that had grown to 61 percent. Three-quarters of those people now use their phones for directions and location-based services. One in five Americans used the Google Maps app in June; one in eight used Apple Maps. Tens of millions more rely on car-based modules hitched to the satellites of the Global Positioning System.
That is dumbfounding progress. The full precision of GPS was made public only 15 years ago, and as recently as the early 2000s, GPS was considered a tool of “sailors, hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts.” Today, nearly every mobile app employs it. Radio traffic reports feel as antiquated as floppy disks.