A history of the navigational tools that tell us where we are.
In his debut, Boston Globe technology reporter Bray notes that for most of human history, we lacked maps and navigational tools. Early sailors relied on the wind and waves to get their bearings. In Europe, maps first appeared on Spanish cave walls 14,000 years ago. Today, “mankind has essentially solved the problem of location” due to a remarkable spate of navigational innovation in the 20th century, much of it prompted by the demands of the two world wars. Beginning in ancient times with the great cartographer Ptolemy, Bray recounts the story of mapping and navigational systems through the work of an array of inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs. In the 16th century, mapmaker Gerhard Mercator made it possible to plot an accurate course at sea. In the early 20th century, inventor Elmer Sperry created gyroscopes to steer aircraft and cruise missiles. In the 1990s, Stephen Poizner perfected the phone-based GPS technology that turned smartphones into portable navigators. Indeed, GPS, born in the Cold War, “has indelibly altered the way we live and work and travel.” Bray also describes the development of WiFi navigation; the eye-level, street-by-street views of Google Maps; and the Google Earth images, which allow us to see our own homes as well as the Parthenon and the Grand Canyon. The author provides fascinating stories on the use of these technologies, from the mapping of North Korea by amateur cartographers to the “crisis mapping” that redraws the maps of a country in the wake of a disaster. Bray calls for limits on government use of advanced location techniques to track citizens, noting that police departments now “keep tabs on us with almost Orwellian diligence.” It takes just three months’ worth of location data for a researcher to predict a person’s next move with accuracy.
Bright, well-written and highly informative.