On Labor Day, in 1973, a dozen military officials furtively gathered in an office of a deserted Pentagon building in Washington DC to discuss a new global satellite-based navigation system. Most historians, never mind voters, know almost nothing about that meeting, which launched the network now known as the global positioning system, or GPS. That is a pity.
I have been reading a new book, Pinpoint, by American journalist Greg Milner, which seeks to explain how GPS came into being and how it now operates. It is one of the most mesmerising and exhilarating, yet alarming modern technology books I’ve read. These days most of us have become stealthily addicted to GPS, not just when driving but also when performing many functions with our smartphones and other devices.
Milner calculates that there are already about five billion devices in the world that use GPS (including three billion smartphones), creating a $21bn GPS economy. “This extraordinary system began as an American military application, a way to improve the accuracy of bombs and keep bomber pilots safe,” Milner writes. “[But] today its tentacles are everywhere.”
As with so much of our cyber economy, most of us have no clue how GPS works; nor that the entire system is run by an obscure squadron of the US Air Force based near Colorado Springs. If you start looking into the network, it becomes clear that the GPS story deserves far more attention — not least because we urgently need to think about what might happen if GPS breaks down.
By any standards, it is an extraordinary tale, in part because GPS touches on anthropology as much as science. As archaeologists, historians and anthropologists know, the way humans imagine the world around them has varied enormously over time. In most premodern societies, people did not have objective “maps” of the world in their heads; instead, they perceived the world as contours radiating out from their home. From the ancient Greeks onwards, many cultures assumed that the sun revolved around the earth.
When people started roaming the globe with chronometers and peering at the sky with telescopes, it changed their perspective. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus developed his revolutionary idea that the sun, not the earth, was at the centre of the solar system. Since then, we have learnt to create objective — not subjective — maps with growing accuracy.
GPS alters this perspective again. It uses signals from four or more GPS satellites at a time (out of about 30 orbiting the planet) to pinpoint our position; but it does so by putting us at the centre of our own map.
That lets us navigate our surroundings with once-unimaginable precision but it also enables something else to occur that is important: we can now guide other objects, too.
When GPS finally came of age, this technology was initially used to guide bombs, most notably in the first Gulf war. Today those satellites guide everything from aircraft to oil tankers, from hospital operations to financial trades. And, of course, our cars.
As technological leaps go, this feels almost miraculous, and it might give some grounds for optimism in relation to other seemingly intractable problems, such as climate change.
The danger is that the more we become dependent on this magical technology, the more potentially vulnerable we become, too. Milner cites some fascinating studies by neurologists, for example, which suggest that when people rely on GPS to navigate, they stop interacting with their environment in a cognitive sense, and their brains appear to change.
More worrying still, as our modern transport, industry and infrastructure networks become more reliant on GPS, there is a growing risk that these could break down completely if those satellites veer off course. The US military insists this will never happen because it is working to keep the system watertight. And one factor that may help them in that respect is that, ironically, even the US’s enemies depend on GPS. Isis, for example, uses GPS-enabled smartphones in its attacks.
The truly scary thing about our modern cyber world is that nothing now seems truly invulnerable. So perhaps the real moral of the tale is that the next time you get into a car, switch on a smartphone or do almost anything else, you should give silent thanks to those unseen satellites orbiting the earth; and then ponder what we would do if GPS suddenly stopped working. It’s a disorienting thought.