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Senior Correspondent

I think of her as Matilda, which is rather bizarre given that she has neither gender nor personhood. I have never personally known a Matilda, other than the waltzing variety who also seems more imagined than real. Matilda: a disembodied female voice. Maddeningly distant. Perhaps it is the total lack of affect in her voice. I have never heard her sound excited, nothing rattles her. I can completely ignore her, countermand her every suggestion, and she never retaliates. She pauses for a moment and then intones with frustrating placidity, “Recalculating.”

And still, I love her. The cheapie USB A to USB A cable that powers the cooling pad for my laptop had died — meaning I can only run it for a half hour or so before I can fry eggs on it — push it much longer and it simply shuts down. You’d think it would be an easy thing to replace — but no, nobody carries them. Not Staples, not Best Buy, not Radio Shack — nobody except a funky little computer shop called Connect-IT up in some corner of the city I never frequent. I gave Matilda the address and off we went — “going 1.3 miles and turning right on Chapel Hill Road.” 35 minutes of dispassionate dialogue later there I was — “arriving at Connect-IT on the left.” I admit it — I need her. Which is, of course, why my wife bought her for me this Christmas.

Still, I wonder about the place of the GPS in the contemporary technology negotiation. Matilda can be as capricious as any woman I have ever known. As I drive into to work she instructs, “In .5 miles stay left on E. Durham road” despite the fact that both her map and the road curve right. “In .4 miles turn right on Western Avenue.” An obvious left. Yet on the return trip her instructions are flawless. What is it with that? Shades of Hal in 2001 — “Turn left into on-coming traffic. Trust me Robert, it will be all right.”

Then as we approach campus she says, “In 2 miles turn right onto Avent Ferry Road.” This time the directions are correct but the pronunciation is wrong. Everyone who lives here knows that the proper pronunciation is “A”-vent, as in A, B, C. But Matilda says “Aw-vent” as in “Aw-shucks.” “Turn right onto Aw-vent Ferry Road.” If I were to return to Raleigh in 20 years, I wonder if I would discover that all the freshman were telling their friends back home that they live on Aw-vent Ferry Road — because that is how the GPS on their smart phones pronounced it.

The idea is that the more ubiquitous the communication container, the more significant its potential to affect our communicative style — “gr8! on the right in .2 miles.”

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