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Get lost (pun intended) in the implications of modern mapping technologies

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World

Greg Milner
Granta Publications
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Today, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is so precise, it can home in on a single beet in a field. And that, according to Greg Milner, is just the beginning. In his book Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds, Milner lays out the history of GPS, examining its emergence as a military project that eventually became a crucial part of the technological infrastructure of the world. Through a multitude of examples—from Polynesian navigation to precision agriculture to the U.S. military—the world according to GPS emerges, and with it a new way to understand our own sense of place and time.

Our navigational story begins aboard the Endeavour, a research vessel in service of the British Royal Navy in the 18th century. Here, we meet Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator aboard the ship. While on board, Tupaia generated a map of the Pacific that included his home island of Tahiti, as well as 130 other islands spanning a distance of more than 2500 miles. Milner uses the stories of Tupaia and Tevake, a 20th-century Polynesian navigator with a similar gift for orientation, to examine traditional forms of navigation and to explore the subjective experience of geolocation. Milner draws on these stories as the basis for his assumptions regarding navigation, space, and time that emerge throughout the book.

Pinpoint is broken into two parts. Much of part one is dedicated to the story of how GPS grew out of military navigational projects in the late 20th century. In telling the stories of the various military projects that contributed to the development and dissemination of today’s technology, we come to understand its complex nature as an infrastructure system, as well as the political, economic, and social stakes that rest upon accurate and timely data gathering. In one example, Milner describes how GPS was used to keep American soldiers safe and reduce civilian casualties in the Gulf War, as compared to Vietnam, when it was not yet available.

A canoe sailing on the waterHONGKONGHUEY/FLICKR CC BY 2.0

Crews aboard the Polynesian voyaging canoes Hōkūle’a (shown above) and Hikianalia are in the midst of circumnavigating the Earth without the aid of GPS or other modern navigational instruments.

But Milner’s more interesting provocations appear in part two. Here, he explores cognitive mapping and the effects of GPS on our relationship to space, privacy, and security. Cognitive maps, first introduced by Edward Tolman in 1948, are mental representations of our spatial environments. Milner cites evidence that widespread use of GPS has altered our cognitive mapping abilities, creating greater reliance on the technology. This can prove deadly, as he shows, when people follow GPS directions into a lake or off a main road, hoping to find a shorter route.

Whether it is used in tracking potential criminals, aiding commercial planes in difficult landings, or monitoring for earthquakes, GPS produces a sense of security and safety against the unknown and the dangerous. But civilian GPS has created scenarios that exist outside of black-and-white legal definitions of privacy and security and mostly hinge upon safety concerns of individuals and societies as a whole. Milner’s detailed examples will leave you questioning the ways in which GPS has infiltrated our lives.

Milner concludes by chronicling a trans-Pacific voyage that combined etak, a traditional system used by navigators from Micronesia, with a Western process known as dead reckoning. In doing so, he reminds us that our understandings of place and space, though now mostly defined through GPS, remain subjective. Like Tupaia and his map of the Pacific, our location is defined both by objective data and by our own assumptions about the world in which we live.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.