Get lost and find something

I was reading an article in some random mass media magazine the other day that went on and on about how hard it was going to be in the future to get lost. Global positioning satellite systems in cars, cell phones and soon, wrist watches, will let us know at all times where we are.

My immediate reaction was one of dread. Getting lost is a two-way street. If you don’t know where you are, then you can claim to be lost.

Also, if you cannot be found, whoever is looking for you sees you as lost. I don’t like the implication of either meaning.

I’ve written often in this column about my unease at the growing ability of everybody and their brother being able to track your every movement. Getting a page to tell me that there is a Starbucks two doors down on the left in the direction I’m going is not my idea of fun. Nor is the idea that the phone company is keeping a record of wherever you roam-a record that can be turned over to the authorities on request. Sure it would be easier for the cops to have a record of everyone’s movements, but is there anything left to the individual in that kind of world?

To me, the other meaning of getting lost is almost as important. In the physical world, never getting lost means never seeing most of what is around you. Other than worrying about running out of gas, the best way to discover is to wander.

This is also true in the world of invention. Clearly some types of invention, such as the “invention” of the electric light, are best done by repeated trials of slightly differing components. Thomas Edison was said to have tried thousands of different materials for the filament in his light bulb before finding one that would last.

But in many other cases you can’t get there that way.

Some traditional standards organizations seem to think that you can even plan innovation.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has a quadrennial meeting during which it plans what standards it is going to work on over the next four years. The ITU is trying to be more flexible, but the quadrennial meeting is still a fixture.

This mode of operation helped ensure the steady, if unimpressive, development of telephone technology. But it did not produce the Internet.

Getting lost in thought is still the best way to find something you didn’t know was there. Coming around a mental corner and finding a new way to look at a problem is just as exciting as coming around a physical corner and finding an unexpected vista.

I think I’ll keep letting myself get lost from time to time.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University