by Dante Zappala

Google really is obnoxious. I used the service to map out the driving route from Philadelphia to Dubuque. It, in turn, offered me two pieces of information.

The first is that the northern route along I-80 is my best bet in a car. I squiggle across four states for 954 miles and 15 hours before finally crossing the Mississippi into Iowa.

The second bit offered by Google was completely unsolicited. It showed me a perfectly arced line that goes over Lakes Erie and Michigan. That route tempts with a link that says “4 hours, $354.”

Google wants me to fly, not drive, to our friends’ house for Christmas this year. I can see why. It thinks it is easier, more practical and less painful to go that way. Google probably knows I have two kids. It probably knows their ages. Spare yourself the misery, fella.

And these are the exact reasons we have 21st century technology, right? It helps us navigate not just routes but choices. It learns from us to present us safer and smarter options.

Perhaps this is the theory. In reality, technology is more likely to be used to exploit its knowledge of us.

I tried running with a Garmin watch recently. After it finally found the satellites and I got the display right, I set out with it to see if this would somehow improve my running experience.

Rather than help me, it became nothing but a constant distraction. How fast am I running? Oh, that Garmin was right there to capitalize on that ever present insecurity of mine. It doesn’t matter how fast I’m going, I tell myself, this is just a regular training run. But the Garmin knew better. It knew that deep down, I cared how fast I was running.

I spent most of the time during my run giving the watch shy stares in hopeful anticipation that it would give me validating responses.

“You’re doing a great job! Look at you. You’re super!”

Do you have any idea how much I need to hear that on a constant basis? It’s like having my dear mother with me every step of the way.

But, in reality, I missed the best parts of the run. I missed the stories I make up about the people I come across. I missed the replay of the conversation I had with my son the night before. I missed my mind wondering into oblivion and all the treats I brought back with me to reality.

None of what the watch gave me mattered. It was just a run, like countless others. Instinctually, I already knew how fast I was running. The watch didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know or couldn’t find out for myself with a little effort of my own. Plus the thing is huge. I normally run with just a basic women’s stopwatch. This thing is like a handcuff.

In this season of gift giving, we look for those presents that are meaningful to the people who receive them. Selfishly, we want to be associated with that item as it provides comfort, joy, laughter, or efficiency each time the person uses it.

Much of what we might give is now rooted in providing automation and shortcuts. Technology and the toys that package it provide on demand entertainment and connections to information and people. There is less to remember, less to wait on, less to suffer for.

Maybe this is progress. Or maybe it is making us stupid, lazy and unimaginative. Or maybe both.

For some, I’m sure a GPS running watch provides valuable motivation. It makes updating a training log seamless. But ultimately, it runs on a battery and satellites. A well-tuned runner can develop an inherent sense of pace that is foolproof. Not because it is more accurate, but because it is more honest.

More daring for me may be to run with no watch at all. Time and distance are relative to our fears and aspirations, after all. Perhaps running completely free from the constraint of numbers will give me more insight. It’s worth a shot.

I don’t know how long it will really take to get to Iowa. Google has no idea either. There are infinite variables in play. But I’ll arrive, I’m sure of that. And after a nap, I’ll be ready to go for a run.