Do You Trust Technology? The Dangers of Google Maps

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2006-12-046

Update: I am greatly saddened to have to write that since this post, James Kim did not make it out of the woods of Oregon alive. I had a truly difficult time writing this post as this story touched me at an emotional level. My deepest sympathies to the Kim family and their friends and those who loved James Kim. The online community grieves with you.

We’re interrupting our regularly scheduled behavioral finance and money news channel for this particular story. This is the story of James Kim, CNET Editor, as it was unfolding.

I don’t know if you are familiar with the case of a local family here from the San Francisco Bay Area who vanished for a certain period of time, but their story really hit home for me because I truly identified with these people: they are from my area, have similar jobs as my friends and I do, and have kids around the same ages as mine.

The Tragic Story of James Kim, CNET Senior Editor

The father is 35 year old James Kim and he is a Senior Editor at CNET covering the tech beat. There are several videos of him and his family on You Tube, with many clips showing him covering the latest in gadget wizardry. His wife is Kati Kim and they have two children, 4 year old Penelope and 7 month old Sabine. They went missing after Thanksgiving 2006, as they maneuvered their way home from a family trip to Oregon to visit friends and relatives. They were last seen together at 9PM at a Denny’s restaurant where they had dinner, 160 miles from their planned destination, a bed and breakfast inn (the Tu Tu Tun lodge @ on Gold Beach, Oregon. The weather forecast was bleak and the road conditions ahead were rough.

Kim family 1 Kim family 2

The latest update to this story came today: after having been missing for 9 days, Kati and her two children have been found minus James, but along with their car that had somehow become handicapped. Two days ago, James set out on foot by himself to search for help. He still remains missing.

My heart goes out to them. Since I heard about this case in the news, I’ve thought of them and prayed that they would be found unscathed. I am also hoping and praying for a completely happy ending to this situation and that this family is reunited with its father soon.

Here’s the clincher though: beyond this report, something else caught my eye… it’s this piece of information from some of the news articles:

Terri Stone, an innkeeper at the Tu Tu Tun Lodge in Gold Beach, where the Kims were to have stayed the night of Nov. 25, said the road is shown on some Internet road-direction sites as the best way to get to the coast from Grants Pass, but she advises against it.

“It looks like the shortest distance, but it is very, very treacherous,” she said.

I checked Google Maps to see what directions it would give me based on source and destination points very much like what the Kims would have configured. Click here or on the image below to zoom in.

oregon directions

Flaws In Technology Pose Certain Risks & Dangers

So what does this imply?

This may be tough to talk about right now, given that James is still missing and how traumatizing this whole situation is but I thought to bring this up during a time of travel and hard weather conditions, hoping to pass a message. I hope it’s not taken the wrong way when I ponder these topics, but this is what it’s telling me: something we all probably already know to some degree, but just take for granted — that Google, MapQuest and other online search engine map applications and GPS devices have quite a ways to go. Maybe we’re just so thankful about these services, how they’ve made things so much more convenient for us — we’ve forgotten they are not foolproof.

Sure, mapping software still needs to grow up. It needs some features that help refine the direction generating functionality and a way to determine alternate routes based on other inputs. How do you know Google or Yahoo! won’t send you to the depths of dangerous areas, neighborhoods or quite possibly in this case, far-flung wilderness all masquerading as optimal routes? The algorithms need to improve in a huge way — and before they can reach their prime, people will need to supplement technology with some old fashioned research born of word of mouth.

I know that my own habits towards navigation have changed since these programs have come up. I certainly take my routes for granted knowing that I only have to follow my auto navigator to get me places. But how many times has it sent me to spots I wasn’t all that comfortable with but somehow managed to squeak out of? Too many. I always say that my cell phone will bail me out no matter what. But try dialing from a remote mountain canyon. I can very easily see myself in James’ shoes.

It is ironic that James is a guy who works in the field of technology: but could familiarity breed complacency? Our reliance on cell phones, GPS navigational gadgets and internet directions may have made us overly confident about our surroundings, so much so that it may cause us to throw caution to the wind way too readily. We have a tendency to trust technology as the ultimate voice in many matters: It’s easy to think that high tech is the be-all and end-all in too many facets of our lives; very easy to take its advice above all else. Inventions and instruments can make us forget that they are imperfect machines much like we are.

Ultimately, I only wish for the safe return of James Kim, and I am optimistic that he will be found safe. For certain, this serious incident has taught me a few lessons, among them being that we need to:

1. heed travel advisories
2. travel with sufficient food, water and clothing
3. play it safe (the better late than never adage can never grow old)
4. inform others of our plans
5. and most importantly, never trust technology completely

We’re visiting Yosemite next week and even with all the gizmos we are bringing and relying upon, we’re keeping this story deeply and firmly in mind. Again, I profoundly wish that James is found well and that all of you out there will stay safe this winter season.

<Those with information about James Kim’s whereabouts are asked to contact the SFPD immediately–at 415-558-5508 during normal business hours and at 415-553-1071 after-hours.>

Copyright © 2006 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Moneywalks December 4, 2006 at 11:13 pm

I hope that this comes to a happy ending as well. And your right, we’ve all become so trusting of google map or mapquest that we dont even think twice before following whatever directions they give. Thank you for this post.

kronos December 5, 2006 at 12:51 pm

looks like the family’s been rescued.

The Finance Buff December 14, 2006 at 9:56 pm

You are so right. The map software does not take into consideration 3-D. Between the two major highways, there is a big mountain. Trying to cross over in the middle, especially in winter, is impossible. You can see the mountain on a flat 2-D map. I don’t know whether the Kims followed the Google Maps directions, but there are three clues that indicate it’s not the best route:

1. The direction sends them to BLM 34836. BLM is Bureau of Land Management, which owns land in remote areas for the Federal government. BLM road is not highway.

2. The direction also includes NF-23 and NF-33. I think NF stands for National Forest. National Forest roads are not regular highway.

3. The direction shows 87 miles taking 2 hours 56 minutes, for an average speed of less than 30 miles per hour.

What kind of roads are do you think are ahead? Remote, winding, not the kind you want to drive when the weather is bad.

I think sunk cost fallacy also played a role. Weather is bad. Forget about the reservation. Take a hit, stay a night at Grants Pass.

This is in no way a critisim of James Kim. Hindsight is always 20-20. We just have to really really careful with the information we receive and process.

The Finance Buff December 14, 2006 at 11:23 pm

Sorry, typo. You can see the mountain on a flat 2-D map. should’ve been

You CAN’T see the mountain on a flat 2-D map.

Eric December 12, 2007 at 9:26 am

THIS IS SOOO WEIRD. I remember hearing about this family a year ago. I am about to celebrate my 3 year aniversary. My wife and I are going to stay at the tu tu ton lodge. Being the fact my wife spent every christmas of her life in grants pass we were going to drop by there for lunch on our way to gold beach – taking the same route that the Kim’s family did. I am glad I ran across this article. We wil make other arangments now to get to Gold Beach. Thank You

Silicon Valley Blogger April 3, 2011 at 9:22 am

Very sad that the father did not survive. I still think about this case over the years. This story has made us more cautious about how we travel. Never leave your guard down even when you’re enjoying a vacation.

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