Whenever I set foot in a new place, my favorite thing to do is to set out walking. Day or night, the objective is clear; walk just far enough that I feel lost, turn around and try to find my way back. It is, after all, in the midst of feeling lost that discovery is possible. Humans seek the comfort of familiarity, but are also novelty-seeking organisms, which is why solitary confinement is so punishing. Traveling familiar routes, by definition, reduces the novelty in our lives. It will certainly help us get to where we are aiming to go, but as Lao Tzu said, “If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
In a beautiful piece in a recent aviation magazine, Peter Garrison wrote about “The Importance of Being Lost.” In it, he details some of the history of navigating at night and the navigation systems, or lack thereof, that attempted to prevent pilots flying at night from getting lost.
Back in the early 1920’s, when the postal service attempted to deliver mail via airplane at night, rural towns had no electricity to light them up and “airways” consisted of either bonfires set by farmers and eventually a series of electric beacons. A lot of pilots got lost, and many of them crashed as they were often flying in near total darkness.
With the recent advent of GPS, it is nearly impossible to get lost even if you tried. Garrison wrote beautifully that GPS “makes us at once infants and gods. Observers and observed, we watch from on high as our icon, a digital metaphor of self-awareness, creeps across the map. With GPS, there is no longer such a thing as ‘lost.’ Navigation, a great and noble art whose traditions stretch back into prehistory, has been replaced by a computer game… We are much better off, but we have also forfeited something: an adventurous life in which anxiety and relief alternated like the beating of a heart.”
He cites Beryl Markham, who wrote in 1942 about her fear of what the future may hold for pilots: By then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labeled buttons, and in whose minds the knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of the weather will be as extraneous as passing fiction.
Back in the seventies, an American Airlines training pilot coined the term “children of the magenta” to refer to pilots trained in the new avionics of the time. Computerized flight management systems, autopilots and now GPS paint a magenta line on a screen, guiding pilots to their destination, so all pilots need do to get where they want to go is simply follow the magenta line. (By the way, you can see that prescient training session on Vimeo if you have 25 minutes to spare; just look up “children of the magenta.”) The trainer warned that the more dependent pilots become on their sophisticated avionics, the more they are going to lose their basic “stick and rudder” skills. This was decades before the Air France 447 flight, the Colgan crash, and possibly the Asiana crash in SFO were implicated in pilots’ degraded “hand-flying” skills.
Perhaps we are all “children of the magenta.” We live in worlds in which the technology we use throughout the day is comprised of systems we may at best theoretically understand but could never begin to produce, even if given the materials to do so. We have become dependent on our smart phones, our ATM machines, our computers, our cars, and even the electricity that powers nearly all of our gadgets. I am certainly not a Luddite, and tend to be the first person on my block to play with whatever new gadget becomes available, but I do agree that sometimes there really is value in getting lost and testing our basic skills, knowledge, and imagination to find our way home. Our hearts are muscles, after all, and it is the fear that accompanies getting lost that gives them the jolt needed to kick into gear, the jolt of fear that ends in relief as we hopefully find our way home.