It guides our ships and cars, it helps forecast the weather, and it ‘undergirds an enormous portion of the world economy.’ Satellites, orbiting 20,000km above our heads, allow us to monitor tiny shifts in tectonic plates, tell farmers where best to plant their crops, and give us a little extra warning when an earthquake is on the way. The ‘tentacles’ of the Global Positioning System are everywhere but, for all the advantages, Milner wonders if there might be a hefty price to pay.
“There are five billion devices able to receive GPS signals. The system is ‘so potentially invasive that it forces us to reconsider cherished notions of privacy”
Are we, for instance, becoming far too reliant on all the data? Pinpoint contains some vaguely comical stories about ceding autonomy to sat-navs – the Belgian driver who started 90 miles from home, followed every prescribed twist and turn, and ended up in Zagreb – but the consequences could be much more sinister. Milner delves into the fascinating, if hazy, issue of cognitive abilities. He would not want us to lose our in-built mapping nous or carefully acquired navigational skills and, with a dose of alarmism, worries that being in thrall to the machines could even lead to an ‘actual reordering of our neurons.’
More urgently, and realistically, he looks at the spectre of GPS going badly wrong or, more likely, being abused by miscreants. The satellites themselves are safe enough but it would not be too tricky to, for instance, hijack a truck by toying with the technology. Signals could be jammed and the vehicle would vanish from the monitors or a mock signal could be sent so the truck seemed to be on course while actually heading into harm’s way. Similarly, spoof signals could convince a ship bearing valuable cargo to adjust its heading or, in a different realm, attacks could be launched against the GPS-dependent clocks of trading companies where a fraction of a second can mean the difference between riches and ruin.
No-one could have predicted this state of affairs – both the joys and the jeopardy – a few decades ago and the best part of Milner’s book explores the origins of GPS. It all began with the US military and efforts to improve the accuracy of strategic bombing. The bigwigs were slow to see the full potential but successes during Operation Desert Storm made some high-ranking converts. Serious misgivings arose around the issue of the technology’s likely spread: why should a military application be turned to civilian advantage, or gifted to those who were not America’s allies?
The cause of ‘selective availability’ could not be sustained, however, and the glories of GPS became open to all. The men in uniforms still run the Master Control Station in Colorado which ‘presides over every GPS calculation’ and Milner spots a disturbing irony. ‘When an ISIS terrorist gets a GPS reading, the process is enabled by the US military.’
For good or ill, then, GPS ‘has become our heartbeat.’ Milner applauds the opportunities it presents, as well as the scientific ingenuity that created it, but has concerns about ‘what its doing to our culture, our technology, and our brains.’ Across all platforms, there are as many as five billion devices able to receive the signals. The system is also ‘so potentially invasive that it forces us to reconsider cherished notions of privacy.’ Employers can keep tabs on their workers, suspects can be tracked by the cops, and serious ethical and legal quandaries arise.
Milner has put in the hours: interviewing the pioneers, poring over psychological studies, and wrestling with thorny issues. Some of the claims about how GPS ‘may fundamentally change us as human beings’ seem inflated, but the book is a useful starting point for discussion.
The Inuit of the Canadian Arctic are divided. Some blame GPS devices, which began to reach their shores in the late 1990s, for ‘cutting off [their] users from revered traditions and the land itself.’ Others simply perceive GPS as the extension of one such tradition: using the best tools available to negotiate the landscape.
This review was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.