What really wows me are the things we couldn’t do before that are now possible from the palm of our hand...
Every now and then I stop and think, “How did we get along without the internet?” I can read a paper map — and sometimes prefer it to Google Maps when driving — and I remember looking up numbers in the Yellow Pages, but how did we identify songs we heard on the radio, watch the Missouri State women’s basketball team despite being in New York, or shop from our phones for early Black Friday savings during a Thanksgiving football game?
A lot of people did the last one: half of all online shopping on Thanksgiving — all $5.9 billion of it — was done by smartphone, according to Adobe Analytics, and that percentage grows every year.
What really wows me are the things we couldn’t do before that are now possible from the palm of our hand. I was at the New York Botanical Garden last weekend for a holiday lights display. A bit farther up from the bright lights of Manhattan, we could see a few stars, including one that stood out from the rest. Only a few stars are visible in New York City typically, and I look up at Venus and Mars enough to know that what I saw Saturday wasn’t either of them.
I had been reading about how Jupiter and Saturn will appear as a double planet on Dec. 21, for the first time since the Middle Ages, no less, and wondered if that could be the unfamiliar twinkler above the city skyline. I pointed my Night Sky app at the superstar, and sure enough, it showed me Saturn was just off Jupiter’s shoulder at 11 o’clock. I mean, how cool is that?
So much of that day was made possible by my phone. We scheduled our time slot by phone, showed the tickets on my phone to get in, used the cool new camera on the iPhone 12 Pro Max to take pretty impressive low-level pictures and then consulted Google Maps for the optimum route home. If we took the Harlem River Drive to the FDR Drive, we’d be home in 25 minutes, Google said. Naw….I said. Impossible. Of course, all these tech miracles are countered by real life obstacles. We made it home in 29 minutes, not 25, but I couldn’t blame Google for not anticipating the emergency vehicle that blocked 13th St., forcing a reroute that added four minutes to the drive time.
If only Google could have found us a parking spot on the street. I checked that out because I’ve written about smart cities where you can do that. In New York, the SpotHero app only showed parking garages with expensive availability in Manhattan. The map showed a sea of pins indicating garages with vacancies — more pandemic fallout — but we’re not looking to spend $38 on overnight parking. Thanks but no thanks.
A recent one-star reviewer for a parking app said that app allowed him to pay for and reserve a spot but that the lot was full when he arrived and he had to wait half an hour on hold for a refund. Another reviewer said a garage owner wouldn’t honor the rates given by the app. The customer service appeared to be good, but these are the things that worry me about apps like this. When something goes wrong, it’s a major headache.
A parking meter finder app took some lumps from disgruntled users in online reviews. One guy said he found a parking spot but received a ticket for the wrong meter number given by the app. Another complained that the app doesn’t give notification when the meter is running out, leading to multiple tickets. A lot complained that the app simply shut down.
What I really want is an app that finds free parking on the street. The closest we’ve found is a Google Maps feature that tells us where we last parked; half the battle is finding the car to move it. But last week it told us the wrong block and we walked around for 15 minutes trying to find the car.
I’ve become so dependent on technology that I’m really annoyed when it doesn’t work as billed. On the way to the Botanical Garden, Google Maps had us driving in circles in the Bronx with unnecessary entrances and exits involving the Bronx River Parkway and I-95. When she wasn’t giving confounding directions, the Google Maps lady kept blaring that the Botanical Garden was closing soon. Apparently, Google doesn’t know about the after-hours holiday light show.
As our tech lives become more driven by software, we hand off our trust to the virtual world, but sometimes it’s hard to trust something you can’t feel and don’t understand. I passed a young woman on my block Saturday who was holding her phone at arm’s length while turning a flat-footed pirouette on the sidewalk. Her friend asked what she was doing. “It said to hold it up to your surroundings and it would tell you where you are.” But she soon shrugged as so many of us do when the software fails. “It didn’t work,” she said, with a chuckle like she didn’t expect it to. I hoped she hadn’t paid for the app.
I used Google Maps in the morning to check the crowd factor at our new local diner. Our old one, sadly, was a victim of the pandemic and closed. Now we have to walk a few more blocks to another diner. No big deal, but it would be helpful to know before we walked there if there were available tables. Google Maps told us 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning wasn’t a crowded time at Hollywood Diner. I didn’t believe it, thinking that should be prime time. In the age of COVID, you want to know if a restaurant is crowded before venturing in. Sure enough, we got there and saw one occupied table inside, two outside. We sat down, split the lumberjack special (it was good!).
The latest thing? A commercial telling me I can hum a tune and Google will tell me the name. I’m pretty sure this one won’t work, but I can’t blame Google for human error — not being able to carry a tune.