Arrived at destination.
Thus spaketh the somewhat strident, slightly nasal female voice of the iPhone’s satellite navigation system. She sounded so very certain. Yet she was so, so very wrong.
I’ve grown to dislike the artificial woman inside of the iPhone. I don’t much care for her hectoring tone. I don’t respond well to her haughty intonation. She puts me off. This is odd for me, since as anyone who knows me will tell you, I very much prefer the company of women to men, and female voices to male, as a general proposition. Yet when it comes to the SatNav, I’d rather hear something more like HAL, the soothing, smooth-talking artificial intellect running the ship in Kubrick’s 2001:
Now that’s my kind of dulcet mo’f**@in’ heuristic algorithm, but the industry didn’t emulate Kubrick, and to this day most computer voices default to female, a tradition dating back to US Air Force studies in the late 1950s or early 1960s (if memory serves) that showed that both men and women tended to pay closer attention to automated voice commands when they sounded like they were coming from your mom. Gene Roddenberry was aware of this when he made the Starship Enterprise’s computer female, and the voice annunciators in Air Force fighters also speak in a feminine timbre, shouting out warnings like Altitude! Altitude! when you’re flying too low for the terrain, Airspeed! Airspeed! when you’re flirting with a stall, Pull up! Pull up! when you’re nose-diving toward the tarmac, and so on. The pilots have named her Bitchin’ Betty. Betty used to be synthetic, generally, but Boeing decided to record an actual human being for the warning system in the F-18:
That wouldn’t really work for a SatNav, you’d have to sit thousands of women in recording booths for hundreds of years to crank out all the permutations, so the voice emanating from the iPhone remains artificial. Some people refer to it, and others like it, as Silicon Sue, but she’ll always be Bitchin’ Betty to me, and she always sounds like she’s warning you of an imminent mid-air collision, even when the only instruction is something like for 320 kilometers, keep to the route. There’s also a persistent, subtle, but unmistakable undercurrent of frustrated disdain in her incessant commands, as if she frankly dislikes you for reasons unrelated to your driving, and you know perfectly well what those reasons are, buster, so don’t come on all innocent with her. It’s sort of like your pissed-off mother-in-law is navigating from the back seat, and if you don’t follow her instructions to the letter she never shuts up about it. On the road two days ago, Kathy made the mistake of punching in a destination before realizing it was a good idea to take the next exit and find a gas station, and as we deviated from the mandatory blue line on the screen, Betty started having shit fits, directing us with increasing urgency to execute a series of complex maneuvers designed to get us back to the highway ASAP, issuing an updated set of instructions at each intersection. Finally, clearly at wit’s end, she commanded a U-turn, which under the circumstances wasn’t such a hot idea, but you know, she was out of safe options. It had become necessary to take certain risks, lest we miss our last chance to hit the on-ramp in a satisfactorily efficient manner. Choice of evils, you understand.
She never actually says it, but you can hear it anyway: asshole. As in, proceed to the route, asshole. Keep to the left, asshole. Look, asshole, in 500 meters turn right to continue along Route 7. She was always perfectly clear, utterly unambiguous, yet now we weren’t in compliance, and as we sat there, unauthorized, complacently motionless at the Petro-Can, you could sense her grinding her teeth, fuming, seething, indignant. Just to rub salt in it, apparently, I took a little extra time to squeegee the windshield. This was unacceptable. It was an unanticipated, unapproved, overly protracted, utterly discombobulating act of malicious side-tracking. This wasn’t in the flight plan. Instantly, as Kathy turned the key, Betty shouted proceed to the route in a biting tone both suspicious and condemnatory. Proceed to the route I said.
I got so used to her constant stream of officious, high-handed imperatives that I half-expected her to bark don’t eat that when I reached into the back seat to grab yet another bag of Ruffles.
I would have defied her. Gotta gorge on Ruffles when you’re on a long road trip.
It’d be one thing if Betty was infallible. If Betty was always right, that’d be one thing. But Betty isn’t always right. She’ll lead you all over Hell’s half acre, pursuing her own obscure logic, explaining little, demanding much, and sometimes sending you down dead ends, or depositing you in front of empty lots where maybe there used to be an Ultramar, once, back when Betty first gathered in her data and pronounced herself omniscient, but not anymore. Whatever that is, it sure as shit ain’t a gas station, Betty. No matter: Arrived at destination.
One time, desperate to furnish our then-new condo in Mahone Bay, we ventured to the new IKEA store in Dartmouth NS, and this is exactly what we saw – these are the exact coordinates at which we sat – when Betty announced arrived at destination:
A big pile of rocks. This was how they were selling boxed, user-assembled Scandinavian furniture these days? Perhaps Smedvik, Billy et al were buried under there, somewhere? Or what? At such times you want to shout at her. Whaddayamean, “arrived”?? How is this arrived?? We haven’t fucking arrived! This is nowhere!! This is some God-forsaken no place in between! Nobody who reaches this spot has ever “arrived” at any goddam thing at all, you witless tangle of malconfigured printed circuits! But what good could come of it? Betty doesn’t care. Betty is like a corporation. A person with no hide to kick, and no soul to damn.
And all right, to be fair, she wasn’t completely out to lunch, turns out. There is an IKEA up there somewhere, on top of the lofty rock plateau, which, from the orbital perspective of a satellite, would have seemed pretty close to where we then were. Take away the topography and we were practically on top of it, as we discovered about 45 minutes later when we finally found the big blue and yellow bastard; it was about 20 feet sideways, and 570 feet due up from where Betty’d dropped us. So, yes, thanks Betty old girl, we got to the IKEA. Where we bought nothing. I mean, we must have purchased something, I suppose, but damned if I can remember what. A little glass table, maybe. Something named Poang, or Pyongyang, or Podbort, or some such shit. Not what we were looking for. That wasn’t in stock. The website said it was, but the website lied, just like Betty lies, and you know what, I’m thinking Betty knew all along. I’m thinking she could have warned us. Proceed to search in vain, she could have said, as we punched in the coordinates. I dunno, maybe she tried. Maybe I’m being unfair to Betty. Maybe parking us in front of the barren pile of rocks was a signal.
Who can say? Who really owns a window into the soul of Betty?
Anyway, we just completed the automotive sojourn from Toronto to Mahone Bay, and it was, as usual, a blast. Truly. I love a good road trip. I love sitting there running the entertainment system while Kathy bombs down the highway at 130+ KPH, Betty barking in the background, enormous RVs and Ford F150s blasting by us like we’re standing still, everybody going balls-to-the-wall down the endless, bendless, featureless divided highway. The stretch through New Brunswick, man, it’s mesmerizing. You just go straight for hours, no control inputs to make, nothing to see except trees, and rock outcroppings, and these things, big as city buses, whipping along by the dozen, as if all God’s chilluns gotta own big rectangular McMansions on wheels, painted beige and brown and covered in stylized swooshes:
…on and on, one after another, all the same, everything the same, until you’re that close to nodding off while going about 140, just about ready to start stacking Zs even while they try to scare you back into semi-consciousness with big yellow signage posted every 500 meters issuing warning after warning that you’re about to clip a gambolling moose:
…so for Chrissakes, dumbass, watch out for the frigging moose, and remember the moose are everywhere, they’re literally all over the place, every one of them on a kamikaze mission with your name and photo taped to the instrument panel, and listen, pal, you take your eyes off the road for just one second, just to fiddle with the radio, or to reach back to grab some junk food, and five’ll get you ten that’ll be it. Right that instant. Curtains. You’ll vector yourself to a high speed intercept of half a metric tonne of meandering moose meat, then strike him precisely at knee level, at just that knobby set of joints where he folds up like a card table, and his big old furry moose torso will slam right through your windshield at 140, antlers and all, which’ll be lights out for the both of you. Just like that. Bang. Over in a heartbeat. Neither of you will even have time to scream. Believe it, buddy, when you’re barrelling down the highway here in NB you’re always just a second away from the Great Beyond, so WAKE UP!! CAN’T YOU READ THE SIGNS???? ARE YOU NOT COGNIZANT OF THE MOOSE MENACE? DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?? ARE YOU INSANE?? SUICIDAL?? YOU WISH TO DIE, IS THAT IT?? LORDY, WATCH OUT – MALICIOUS MOOSE ARE LURKING!!
Ah, the open road.
But hey, we made it! We missed all the moose and Betty got us here, chastened of course, ashamed of ourselves and our non-compliant navigation, but home and dry at last after two years away owing to COVID, and I’m tickled pink. It’s a ball driving down here. I maintain that the surest way to fall in love with this beautiful, orderly, civilized, genuinely magnificent country is to simply travel by road across some significant part of its breadth. Then, to realize that this is ours, and this is where we belong: