GPS is a technology, along with heart rate analysis, that fascinates me.
As argued before, I think that what it offers us are great tools to use as symbols of our place(s) in this world and tools for their further exploration.
Suunto’s Ambit (see earlier review here) has recently been updated to firmware 1.5, its navigation capabilities have been greatly improved with that – and some of the resulting discussions are perfect illustrations of ways in which we are not at home in this world. Ways we often end up using such tools, and becoming “tools” ourselves.
Let’s have a look.
In the case of the Ambit, it’s in Suunto’s Movescount platform that you can set it up as you want, as far as it lets itself be customized (which is pretty far), and where you can now also create routes with waypoints along which the Ambit can guide you:
It is limited, however, to a route (or routes) consisting of a total of 100 waypoints – and people have been complaining about it.
Admittedly, if you wanted to store a number of routes, that limit may be a problem. The Ambit is a digital tool for which a (very) regular internet connection is necessary in any case, though. The complaint, however, is that those 100 waypoints aren’t enough for a single route of, e.g., an ultramarathon. Furthermore (?), you cannot be guided along a track, “turn-by-turn,” as on a handheld GPS. Rather, you have to mark waypoints along a route, either while on the move or, more likely, in preparing where you want to go in advance, on the Google map you find in Movescount. No following a track you downloaded off the internet and imported to Movescount if you don’t set the necessary waypoints yourself. And only 100 of them.
This argument fascinates me to no end. Not as a critique of the technology, but as a sign of the ways in which we give up on learning to be at home, having skills, and taking responsibility.
As you can see in my review video for the navigation, it works nicely. The navigation screen simply adds itself to the displays used for the exercise. At every waypoint, the Ambit tells you that you are approaching it when you get within 100 m distance and shows how to continue to the next point when you are within 20 m of the current waypoint:
So, with enough points – if only that were possible – you could just about run without ever looking away from the GPS on your wrist. Which is, of course, just the problem.
This tool, unlike an automotive GPS, for example, is made for outdoors use, even where there may be no trails. So, there cannot be a database of the usual paths – read: roads – to take. Now, that could mean – as some argue – that it’s all the more important to store enough waypoints yourself so that you can mark a trail well enough to not get in trouble, e.g. having two waypoints connected as the crow flies – with a chasm in between that you would need to go around, but don’t see as your GPS points the way.
There’s something to be said for that, but the direction in which that notion points is that of wanting to replace the skill in reading the land and the maps, and the responsibility for the proper decision on where to go to, with an electronic gadget’s guidance. When you think about what that means – which is, giving up on power and responsibility even for where you go when you are outdoors, in favor of reliance on a battery-powered small screen – it’s crazy.
An outdoors instrument, as nice as it can be, is still just a tool or a toy. Having a track (and heart rate and all that) recorded thanks to it is fun and can be a decent guide in proper training; having some guidance as to where to go is nice and helpful – but constantly watching a tiny gadget to be guided along a distinct track while being in the great outdoors which begs for attention is just absurd.
It is just like the – all-too-common – stories of automobile drivers who relied on their GPS’ guidance… and when it said “turn left,” they turned left into the oncoming traffic of a one-way street that wasn’t in the database as such, or onto a bridge that didn’t exist anymore. Truck drivers have gotten stuck, trusting the technology implicitly, even though it was made for standard cars and not for a tall truck, hence discounting max headroom…
In the outdoors, and even just in our neighborhoods, a big part of the learning involved in its exploration should be that of building skill, reading maps (and remembering to bring them in the first place), getting back to the human pace, and developing our own mental map of our surroundings.
So, check the map beforehand, store some waypoints for guidance if it’s really necessary for fun or safety – but remember that the power and pleasure you seek comes from the development of your own fitness and skills, not from a toy/tool you bought.
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