The Critic: Pin­point ex­plains how GPS came to be—and how it may be al­ter­ing our brains

A his­tory of GPS ex­am­ines the costs of re­ly­ing on it By Drake Ben­nett

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS -

IS THE SYS­TEM CHANG­ING THE STRUC­TURE OF OUR BRAINS?

In Pin­point: How GPS Is Chang­ing Tech­nol­ogy, Cul­ture, and Our Minds, Greg Mil­ner tells two sto­ries. One’s about how the Global Po­si­tion­ing Sys­tem be­came one of the 21st cen­tury’s most im­por­tant tech­nolo­gies. The other’s about how it may be stunt­ing the brains of the in­ge­nious species that cre­ated it. We use GPS to­day to guide air­planes, ships, and trac­tors. It keeps tabs on sex of­fend­ers and helps find oil de­posits. “GPS sur­veys land, and builds bridges and tun­nels,” Mil­ner writes. “GPS knows when the earth de­forms; it senses the move­ment of tec­tonic plates down to less than a mil­lime­ter.” GPS can tell you how long un­til your Uber ar­rives—and even let you know if some­one nearby is in­ter­ested in a one-night stand.

The set of tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges that had to be solved to en­able all of this was for­mi­da­ble. There were cul­tural stum­bling blocks, too. The U.S. Air Force birthed the sys­tem, but the brass starved it of funds be­cause it didn’t see the need for an­other nav­i­ga­tion tool. Once GPS’s value be­came clear, the Pen­tagon tried to keep the most ac­cu­rate ver­sion for it­self, de­grad­ing the civil­ian sig­nal so it was less pre­cise. The first com­mer­cial GPS com­pa­nies fo­cused on de­sign­ing de­vices to the ex­act­ing stan­dards of the mil­i­tary. Mag­el­lan, and es­pe­cially Garmin, came to dom­i­nate the mar­ket, mak­ing bil­lion­aires of their founders, by sell­ing cheaper de­vices whose di­min­ished ac­cu­racy was per­fectly sat­is­fac­tory for peo­ple not launch­ing mis­siles. (Pri­vate-sec­tor en­gi­neers even­tu­ally found ways around so-called se­lec­tive avail­abil­ity, and the mil­i­tary’s jam­ming was aban­doned.)

Now, of course, ev­ery smart­phone is a GPS de­vice—if ad­vances in chip de­sign have al­lowed us to carry around pow­er­ful com­put­ers in our pock­ets, as of­ten as not it’s the 24 GPS satel­lites cir­cling the planet that make us take them out and use them. Mil­ner ar­gues that ubiq­uity has be­gun to ex­act a price. Part of that price is the ease with which we can now be lo­cated and tracked, but he also writes about an­other cost. He opens his book with an en­chant­ing ac­count of how an­cient Poly­ne­sian nav­i­ga­tors fig­ured out how to cross thou­sands of miles of open ocean in out­rig­ger ca­noes, guided only by the stars and the cur­rents. To­day, he points out, peo­ple blindly fol­low their turn-by-turn in­struc­tions into lakes or drive miles be­fore they re­al­ize they mistyped the name of their din­ner des­ti­na­tion. He spec­u­lates, cit­ing some sug­ges­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search, that our re­liance on the tech­nol­ogy may be al­ter­ing the struc­ture of our brains.

How much should we worry about this? Mil­ner doesn’t raise the ques­tion so he can lec­ture us. He’s too busy trac­ing all the fas­ci­nat­ing trib­u­taries that feed into his story. He’s a vivid writer and a con­cise ex­plainer, and when plot­ting a path through his ma­te­rial, he al­ways opts for the scenic route. Mil­ner didn’t nec­es­sar­ily have to go into the birth of bomb­ing or the his­tory of be­hav­ior­ism or the early 20th cen­tury de­bate about con­ti­nen­tal drift to tell the story of GPS, but it’s a far more fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney be­cause he did. <BW>

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