Google pain worth the gain

by on November 2, 2018

THE Australian-accented woman’s voice on Google Maps can sure murder the pronunciation of Italian street names. “In 800 metres turn left at VIE-AH LEPARD-DIE then turn right into VIE-HA GUY-SEP LEDG-EO,” and so on.

Just as well.

The car we (my wife Louise and I) had hired for our two-week drive around Sicily had a navigation system, but it was set to Italian and there was no teenager or PhD in electronic engineering readily available to set it to English, even if such a thing were possible.

The Google Maps app downloaded in Australia with attendant Aussie-accented voice was therefore a godsend. It made me wonder if we are all becoming too Google-dependent and making us utterly vulnerable if for any reason it fails.

Driving around Sicily would have been a nightmare without Google Maps. She (and we called Google Maps “She” because of the voice) got us there every time – well, almost. She came unstuck when a road or one direction of a freeway was closed or when negotiating the maze of narrow one-way streets in a Sicilian hilltop town.

Approaching our hotel in Taormina (population 11,000), with the box at the bottom left of Google Maps giving arrival time as one minute and the distance as 80 metres, she said, “In 10 metres, turn left and your destination will be on the right.”

There was no left turn. Not there, nor anywhere for at least as far as the eye could see. We kept driving. Suddenly the Google Maps bottom-left box changed to “Destination 7.5 kilometres and 25 minutes” and Her voice, seemingly sounding more urgent, yelled, “Continue south-west for 2 kilometres, then turn right into VAHL HEN-RIO SUJE.”

Usually, the correction is a run around the block and She is very quick to recalculate. But not in Taormina. You have go out of town and half way down the hill on a one-way street and back up the other side.

We had another crack at it. Very silly. Indeed, the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result, at least according to a late 19 th century edition of Narcotics Anonymous.

Of course, we got the same result. And like the last time the 25 minutes turned out to be more than an hour.

The third time, as we approached the segue point on Google Maps we turned another way and stopped the car, ignored Her yelling to “continue south-west for three kilometres”, and phoned the hotel. They sent a human to rescue us.

And an aside here on Italian driving. The stereotypical Italian driver is an impatient, aggressive, risk-taker. But like many stereotypes it is quite misplaced. Pushing in when you don’t have right of way could be seen as aggression. But if people did not push in occasionally they would get nowhere in the near grid-locked traffic. For every pusher-in, there are an equal number of gracious drivers who allow someone to enter the traffic.

It seems more like a case of empathy. In Italy all drivers know what it is like to face an endless stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic with no hope of getting anywhere without pushing in and hoping someone is gracious or resigned enough to let you do it.

Similarly, hazardous over-taking on narrow country roads is not done so much out of a reckless death-wish but in the knowledge that if someone comes the other way, they will slow up, move over and let you continue over-taking, because without such give-and-take things would grind to a halt.

Sure, like everywhere, Sicily has its share of bad drivers, but driving behaviour arises from conditions, not some mythical national trait.

But, back to Taormina. On leaving and finally getting on the freeway She ordered us to “Take the exit to Catania and Syracuse”, without reckoning on that exit being closed.

It was 40kms before She could find a place to turn us around. But on re-entering the freeway I forgot to take a pay ticket. (Italy has a manual freeway-payment system.)

Not to worry. On exiting 40kms later, Google (like God) got us out of the pooh into which it had put us in in the first place. Louise had keyed into her phone the whole explanation and Google translated it into Italian. We passed the phone with the translation to the bloke in the ticket box who charged the rate for 40kms of freeway and let us through.

Google-dependency won the day.

However, we also sometimes used it for restaurants. But I don’t think it was much better than taking pot luck walking about.

When Google translates information into money it does not have the purity that it has when translating languages or maps into directions.

Consumers searching for goods and services on Google would be naïve to imagine that the first page of any Google search contains the best deals for them. No, it contains, first, the best deal for Google and, second, the best deal for the merchant. The consumer comes a poor third.

I know this from the other side. We rely on people’s Google searches and holiday-letting sites to lease our two holiday villas. Many places that we know from first-hand knowledge to represent much poorer value for money rank higher in the search engines.

This is not sour grapes. It adds up. Holiday-letting sites get paid percentage commissions. They get more money if the rent is higher, so why wouldn’t they put the poorer deal for the consumer up higher.

Google gets paid by people pushing their sites higher. That cost gets passed on to consumers.

Merchants pay money to people who say they can do search engine optimisation (SEO) on your site, for a fee. If they are effective, it again means the consumer is being dudded as the higher ranking is not being produced by better service or lower price, but by computer tweaking.

A way around this is for consumers not to always look at the items on the first page, but, say, shake a dice as to which page to look at first.

Further, Google’s news and opinion search results are often warped by the popularity of the populist, extreme and sensationalist, but searches for straight information remain untainted. A way around this is to encourage people not to click on sensationalist stuff.

But all that aside, I am happy to be Google-reliant if the commercial side permits Google to provide language translation, map directions and quick access to relevant information. I say: “Che bello. Fantastico. Splendido.”

And until next week, “Arrivederci.”
CRISPIN HULL
This article first appeared in the Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 3 November 2018.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>