"The Best Tech"

There's a scene in the excellent True Fiction, by Lee Goldberg, in which one of the characters leans back in his chair and marvels at how the US intelligence forces have all "the best tech." It's a silly scene in a silly book, and I won't spoil it by delving too deeply into it. The reason I bring it up is because it's emblematic of a common belief about law enforcement in the United States: that their skills and technological prowess are on a level far superior to anything ordinary human beings can fathom. In the psyche of many Americans US law enforcement and military have taken on almost the same esteem of super-heroes.

I thought about this over the weekend, while I was riding my bicycle.

It was supposed to be a pair of relatively easy rides. For a week, I had been looking forward to exploring a bicycle path I'd recently heard about from a fellow cyclist. Meanwhile, it's long been a goal of mine to ride my bicycle from my house to a particular relative's house, some 30-40 miles away, across the metroplex. Last weekend, a friend of mine was having a music concert at a block party just off the bicycle path I wanted to explore; then, later that afternoon, my relative was having a house party of her own.

Perfect! I thought, I'll ride the twelve or so miles to see my friend's concert, then I'll ride from there to my relative's house, another twelve or thirteen miles from the concert. At less than thirty total miles of easy riding, I was disappointed that I wouldn't get a hard ride in, but happy about being able to "kill two birds with one stone" by exploring the new bike path and riding to my relative's house on the same day.

The ride to the concert was pleasant and uneventful. The concert was also very good. I hopped on my bicycle and started riding to my relative's house. I made it about halfway when I noticed that a major stretch of road had been closed, including an overpass above a major highway. I decided to try to ride through the closed road anyway. I went a few blocks before a police officer indicated with her siren that I needed to find another route. I waved acquiescence and turned onto a side-street to see whether I could find my way to the next overpass.

I rode for another 10 minutes or so before I finally realized that I needed the help of my GPS. I scanned for a route on my phone, found something I thought might work, and headed out. To my chagrin, my GPS map kept "resetting" the route to the shortest, most direct route: across the closed overpass. There was no way for me to find an alternate route. I decided to head back the way I came and ask the police officer for directions.

The officer and I talked for a while. To my surprise, when I asked her for directions, she pulled out her personal cell phone, fired up the Google Maps application, and showed me a 10-mile detour I'd have to take to get around the road closure. I thanked her and went on my way.

But: the officer didn't tell me anything I hadn't already learned looking at my own Google Maps app. In fact, as we were discussing possible routes, I also pulled out my phone and searched right along with her. The police don't seem to have any better sense of directions than anyone else, and it's all based on the same "tech." Their Google Maps is exactly the same as mine. I'm grateful to the officer for trying to help me, but I marvel at the fact that consumer technology and police technology are one and the same.

If anything, with more bicycling and route-finding experience on my end, I might have been the better one with finding a route.

While this, of course, "proves nothing," I think it is a good example of the fact that law enforcement is not necessarily any more technologically advanced than the average person. When libertarians occasionally suggest that certain government provisions could be painlessly eliminated, we are stereotypically presented with a confrontational question: "But without government, who would build the roads?" In this case, this "road" has been built by Google, and placed in the hands of consumers and government alike.

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