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Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Our World

Greg Milner

(London Times)

If you think the global positioning system (GPS) touches your life only via the sat nav in your car, think again. In this startling and persuasive book, the American journalist Greg Milner shows how it saturates our existence. We depend on it for the phones we use, the food we eat and the planes in which we safely land — not to mention the precision-guided bombs we drop on our distant enemies. As with the internet, GPS might even be changing the way we think.

Its origins lie in the Cold War. In 1958, American engineers tracked Russia's Sputnik satellite using the Doppler effect (the one that makes an ambulance siren sound different as it moves towards you and away). If they could track a satellite by following its signal, they realised, they could reverse the process and use the satellite to work out where they were on the ground.

However, it was the Vietnam War that really drove the development of GPS. The US military sought new, precision-guided bombs, and started creating a system that would let bombers know exactly where they were. By the time of Desert Storm, in 1991, GPS was ready for use in anger. GPS-equipped helicopters led the American night assault, dropping a trail of glowing yellow 'chemlights' to guide the attack helicopters to Iraq’s radar stations. When the ground troops followed, it was the first 'large-scale deep desert advance in the history of warfare' - a feat made possible by GPS. The technology was so successful (for marking mines, bringing in supplies and avoiding friendly fire) that American soldiers frantically began buying their own private, commercial GPS units.

Until 2000, the Pentagon (which still maintains the GPS satellites) introduced imprecision into the system, running military and less accurate civilian signals in parallel. As tech companies worked out ways to boost the precision of civilian receivers, and as the value of the GPS market grew rapidly, the military had to let go. In 2000, President Bill Clinton effectively gave the world GPS.

The GPS market is now estimated to be worth trillions of dollars, and Milner traces its proliferating civilian uses in the second half of the book. It is no surprise that it controls lorries, railways and emergency vehicles, or that it stacks planes and brings them in to land. More unexpected is the importance of how ultra-precisely it measures time as well as space. Mobile phones depend on this for handing over phone calls from one signal mast to another in perfect synchrony. Electricity grids need it to manage the flow of electricity on national scales.

In Britain, GPS is partly replacing the probation service, with 75,000 tagging devices envisaged. It is invading farming, too, as tractors steer by satellite in order to plant and harvest in ultra-precise rows, with startling effects on productivity. And GPS will save lives. If the new, satellite-synchronised, earthquake-monitoring technology had existed in Japan in 2011, it could have given an extra 20 minutes warning of the scale of the approaching tsunami. Time to “park cars, take cover, turn off gas,” says Milner.

Then there is sat nav and 'death by GPS'. People have driven cars into lakes, over cliffs, off bridges and accidentally across Europe (as with the Belgian woman who drove to Zagreb instead of heading 90 miles home). This is not mere stupidity. We do not just outsource the mapping part of our brains when we follow that reassuring voice, it seems, we disengage from our environment at a much deeper level. We start to answer that central human question 'Where am I?' in a profoundly different way, proposes Milner.

He suggests that GPS is as potent and pervasive a force as the internet - if much less well understood. The truth, which he doesn’t fully address, is that the power of the digital age derives from the convergence of the two systems. GPS enabled precision bombing. GPS plus social media created Tinder and Grindr.

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