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Feedback: Turning on Directions

This is the first post in a mini-series on Sci on the Fly that will explore questions about feedback. This post asks: How can real-time feedback fail us and what makes it potent?

The hit television show, The Office, has a laughable scene that reveals a potential limitation of real-time feedback. In it, Michael is driving Dwight across the state to drum up business. He comes to an intersection, and his Global Positioning System (GPS) unit instructs him in real-time to make a right turn. Michael then proceeds, and the following dialogue ensues:

      Dwight: Wait, wait, wait. No, no, no. It means bear right up there.

      Michael: It said right. It said take a right.

      Dwight: No, no, no. It means go up to the right, bear right over the bridge, and hook up with 307.

      Michael: Maybe it’s a shortcut. It said go to the right.

      Dwight: It can’t mean that! There’s a lake there!

      Michael: The machine knows.

      Dwight: This is a lake!

      Michael: Stop yelling at me.

      Dwight: There’s no road here!

Michael then drives into the lake over Dwight’s objections. It would be easy to dismiss this as a sensationalized television plot if only it hadn’t happened in real-life time and time again.

Feedback, even in real-time, can be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst, if it isn’t built on existing knowledge or skills. Michael should have realized that cars don’t belong in lakes. And while Michael did indeed lack common sense, he more crucially lacked situational awareness and an ability to evaluate the feedback that he had become so accustomed to trusting in real-time. When the GPS directions were unclear, he did not have the knowledge to evaluate the feedback and then act correctly. It is like telling someone who is drowning to keep their head above water—they can’t make use of that advice, however instantaneous, if they don’t know how to swim in the first place.

Navigating unknown roads based on maps, landmarks, odometers, and signs was once a challenge. Then came satellite navigation systems based on the GPS that rendered many navigation skills unnecessary with real-time, turn-by-turn directions through confusing city streets and around traffic and detours. It even corrected missed turns in an instant. These changes to how we navigate also affect how our brains function. It appears that relying on GPS reduces our brain activity, which might explain why it is such a shock when we realize we are lost.

On the opposite spectrum is a London taxicab driver who must commit the city’s 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks to memory. In passing what has been called the world’s hardest geography test, taxi drivers prove in monthly exams over an average of four years that they can navigate anywhere in the city. To pass the test, they visit every road and study maps of London’s idiosyncratic streets. Their hippocampi actually grow through the combination of knowledge and skill acquisition. The real-time feedback they garner from wheels-on-the-ground research cements their knowledge to the point that London cabbies beat GPS-guided drivers in races across London.

If the transition from paper maps to GPS is any indicator, feedback of the future will be even faster. Our senses have provided us with real-time feedback since birth. It is how we learn to walk, run, and never touch a hot stove twice. Consider athletes who are no longer satisfied with reviewing tapes after a game to improve. They instead wear sensors and embed devices into their uniforms that provide them, their coaches, and their teammates with statistics during training and competition. What comes after real-time feedback may well be predictive feedback based on artificial intelligence. Maybe a future satellite navigation system will guide you home after first routing you to the pharmacy to buy ibuprofen. It knows, after all, that you only hit the gym for the first time in a month that very morning.

However instantaneous feedback may be, it remains most powerful when it stands to augment or enhance knowledge or skills. Before your next trip, consider exploring the route on a map and brush up on the “never eat shredded wheat” mnemonic to remember the cardinal directions. But if you prefer to forgo this article’s feedback, be prepared for the ramifications. As Michael Scott says: “Sometimes I’ll start a sentence and I don’t even know where it’s going. I just hope I find it along the way.”

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