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How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our MindsTo Do What Your Competitors Can't
by Greg Milner

Location, Location, Location

Finding that path is precisely what journalist Greg Milner does in his remarkably engaging book Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds, which takes what might seem to be a mundane subject — the Global Positioning System — and uses it to tell an intricate story about the relationship between technology, the economy, and human ability. GPS, like many other technologies we use today, was built by the U.S. Defense Department. It was conceived as a tool to make military targeting, and in particular bombing, more effective and efficient. In Milner’s words, GPS was invented by those who wanted to “bring death from above.” The U.S. government maintains GPS to this day, which means that, as Milner writes, “when an ISIS terrorist gets a GPS reading, the process is enabled by the United States military.”

GPS was released for civilian use in the 1980s (the U.S. government originally maintained two versions of the system, with civilians using a more degraded and less accurate version, but the distinction was erased in 2000). But it wasn’t until the emergence of the Internet and widespread mobile connectivity that the true value of GPS emerged. Nowadays, it allows companies such as UPS and FedEx to route packages far more efficiently; enables planes to land more safely; abets precision agriculture, in which automated tractors are able to perfectly till, sow, and harvest fields; places personal navigation systems in cars; and facilitates the tracking of criminals and terrorists. And now, with Pokémon Go, it allows people to chase virtual creatures through the real world, in the most vivid example yet of augmented reality.

As Milner shows, though, the same things that make GPS so enormously valuable also make it dangerous. Because the state can track criminals and terrorists, it can also track any citizen with a smartphone. Our reliance on GPS makes us vulnerable to anything that could disrupt the system, which might be hacks that spoof GPS (sending false location signals) or solar flares. GPS also gives businesses access to information that consumers don’t even know they’re disclosing.

Our dependence on GPS may also be reshaping our minds. Humans’ ability to navigate and orient themselves in space is remarkable, which is why Milner begins his book with the story of Polynesian sailors who managed to sail thousands of miles of empty ocean without losing their way. Although those sailors had seemingly superhuman navigation skills, we all rely, to some degree, on “cognitive maps” that help us understand and navigate complex environments. Those maps may be degenerating in the face of GPS, because we no longer need them to get from one place to another. The extreme consequence of this is what’s called “death by GPS,” as drivers blithely follow their mapping app into the desert or the ocean. But more subtly, GPS seems to transform our relationship to the landscape around us. One Cornell University study found that using GPS made drivers more “detached” and “eliminated much of the need to pay attention.” In other words, it may make us simply see less of the world around us.

Pinpoint, the best business book about technology this year, showcases both the upsides and downsides of GPS. It also implicitly makes two crucial points about the nature of technological innovation. The first is that public investment in new technologies can create enormous spillover benefits for the economy as a whole. (The Internet and the World Wide Web, of course, show the same phenomenon on an even wider scale.) GPS would not exist, after all, had it not been for the Cold War, which spurred the U.S. government to invest heavily in technologies that were then repurposed for civilian use, including the transistor, lithium batteries, the microprocessor, and GPS. Indeed, as Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato argues in her important book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Private vs. Public Sector Myths (Anthem, 2013), just about every piece of technology in your smartphone can be traced back to the Department of Defense in one form or another.

The second essential lesson is that the value of powerful new technologies isn’t always apparent at the time they’re introduced. The U.S. Air Force, for instance, kept trying to kill funding for GPS, because it felt that navigation systems were already accurate enough. It didn’t recognize how useful pinpoint guidance might be, and it couldn’t, of course, envision how powerful the combination of mobile connectivity and GPS would become. Milner shows that civilians grasped the real usefulness of GPS long before most of the military did, in fact. That’s why long-term, patient investments — whether on the part of the government or in the private sector — are so essential to technological progress, even if many of those investments will go bust, and even if successful technologies will often end up looking very different from what their creators initially envisioned. To paraphrase Alan Kay’s famous line, you can’t really hope to predict the future. So the best thing to do is try to invent it.

About the author:

Greg Milner is the author of Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His forthcoming book, Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture and Our Minds, will be published by WW Norton in May 2016. Milner is also theco-author, with filmmaker Joe Berlinger, of Metallica: This Monster Lives. A former editor at Spin, his writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Wired, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, New York magazine, Salon, and the Sunday Times of London.

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