Book review: ‘Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World’ by Greg Milner

GPS is changing the way we live our lives, with more people using satellite technology to find their way around, track daily workouts and even catch fictional creatures out in the wild. In this new publication from Granta, Greg Milner traces the history of GPS and uncovers how it came to conquer the world.

Most people reading this review will no doubt be doing so with their trusty mobile phone not too far away. Chances are that phone is also a smartphone equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities. Your phone works like as a GPS receiver, communicating with a network of satellites that orbit the Earth at fixed points, transmitting signals that carry time codes and geographical data. These satellites make it possible for you to pinpoint your exact position, speed and time anywhere on the planet.

Of course, this is nothing new – GPS technology has been around for decades, so much so that, for many of us, using Google Maps is almost second nature. In fact, GPS is more far reaching than you might realise; your phone can not only help give you directions, it can also pick up data from nearby businesses. Ever walked past a shop and had Google ‘ask’ you to submit some information? This is GPS at play, used for somewhat questionable data mining. You might be surprised to learn just how many aspects of life involve elements of GPS. In his new book, ‘Pinpoint’, Greg Milner traces GPS’s extraordinary history and paints a startling picture of a world saturated by its use.

First developed in the 1950s as a bomb-guidance system and one of the pinnacle technologies of the Cold War, GPS was made available for public use in 1983 and is one of the world’s most widely used technologies. Indeed, GPS goes much further than navigation and catching digital creatures with Pokémon Go. Information from GPS satellites helps to anticipate changes in global weather systems, predicts earthquakes and hurricanes, locates natural gas and oil and is becoming increasingly popular in overseeing agricultural production – the list goes on.

However, Milner warns, while GPS has opened up a whole host of new information about our environment and created opportunities across every sector, there are questions involving its effect on human behaviour. As a population, we could be finding ourselves too reliant on GPS. Milner points to the startling new phenomenon of ‘death by GPS’ – people who have been killed by blindly following the instruction of satellite navigation systems. Even more concerning are the explanations given by those who experienced a close call with GPS. “It kept saying it would navigate us to a road,” a group of Japanese tourists in Australia explained, after driving their car into the ocean. Research has suggested that reliance on GPS could actually rearrange the grey matter in our heads.

Milner takes these concerns further and explores the potential issues with widespread GPS use, not just by individuals, but by whole societies. A single GPS timing flaw, he suggests, could bring down the electricity grid, take over electronic devices and cause havoc in the world financial system. Take into account that such ‘flaws’ could just as easily be malicious as accidental, and you have a whole new problem on your hands.

‘Pinpoint’ unearths with surprising detail the history of GPS as a technology, from its conception during the Cold War, up to its position at the forefront of technology today. Milner goes back to basics, tracing the ways in which humans have understood and navigated their own physical space throughout time, and applying the theories to the development of advanced technological systems. This book offers a striking anthropological analysis of how we, as humans, understand the world around us.

‘Pinpoint:How GPS is Changing Our World’ by Greg Milner is published by Granta (£14.99 ISBN 9781847087081).

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