19 October 2012

Amazing Week, Day 5: GPS

I didn’t stay in the Boy Scouts for long. It seemed to mostly be about sleeping in tents, and camping is something I’ve never wanted to do. I did learn to read maps, though. I was fascinated with spies, and I knew that I’d never be the next James Bond if I couldn’t at least navigate to the villain’s secret underground lair.

My navigational skills came in useful when I first moved to the US. My wife-to-be was living in Minnesota, and we were both moving to Boston. She packed all her stuff into a Ryder truck. She drove, and I read the maps and navigated us across the US. It worked out really well that way around, because I couldn’t drive back then, and she still occasionally gets ‘left’ and ‘right’ confused.

But now, we have GPS. It’s still a bit magical to me. I know vaguely how it works — atomic clocks, satellites, a radio receiver, and triangulation — but not in any great detail. So I look at the screen, and I marvel that I am using satellites up in space to pinpoint my location on the earth’s surface to within a couple of meters. Not only that, I can carry around digital maps of entire countries, with detail down to the level of individual buildings, businesses, street names.

The big danger now isn’t getting lost; it’s that people have quickly become so used to GPS that they assume it will always be there, and that it will always be accurate. They’ve long forgotten how amazing it is that it exists at all.

© mathew 2017