All Commentary
Thursday, November 29, 2012

How We Found Ourselves

It must have been about five years ago when I picked up my first GPS device to use in my car. I got the idea after seeing this in operation in a friend’s car. It was a luxury item for the rich. After a few years, it was available to the rest of us.

At the time, some people thought of this as a fancy map and nothing more. For me, it was different. I suspected that this device would change my life, and I was right.  

You see, I am one of those people who has a seriously deficient sense of direction. In other words, I feel lost most of the time. It’s been this way since I was very young. My parents would take me camping. As soon as I walked out of eyesight of the tent, I was lost and they had to come find me. 

As I grew older, this problem never improved. In school, I could never find classrooms or even the buildings. I had to follow people who I knew were in the same class. I would leave stores and turn the opposite way from how I walked in. As a driver, it took me years to get to know streets. I would wander for hours looking for my car in parking lots. I would come to new cities and have an overwhelming sense of spatial disorientation.

I adapted over the years with certain habits, which really amount to staying put. If I’m where I am supposed to be, I stay there until I have to be somewhere else, and then I depend on taxis or the kindness of strangers to help me find my way. I never wander far from where I’m supposed to be. I’m generally just happy to not be turning in circles, as in some film noir classic, and experiencing that strange sense that I’m a goner, as in The Blair Witch Project.

Then one day I held in my hand a small device that changed everything. Indeed, the change was so dramatic that it took me six months or so even to believe what had happened. I would never be lost again. I could actually leave my hotel and find it again. I could drive in cities where I had never been. I experienced what it must be like to be suddenly granted sight after a lifetime of blindness.  

Even now, I’m still correcting my habits in light of the new realization that I cannot be lost. I can always find my way.  

The other day I was digging around in my glove box and pulled out my old friend, my TomTom 500. I laughed. It seemed like an antique! Now my GPS navigator is on my smartphone as part of the core technology. It talks to me, has an active screen, tells me where I am whether driving or walking, and gives me alternative routes. And this navigation is built into many apps, so that I can find a restaurant, grocery store, or movie theater anywhere I happen to be, whether in my neighborhood or somewhere on the other side of the planet. 

Not only that: stand-alone GPS units are still on the market, and they look better than ever. TomTom is still going strong, but it has competitors that offer more amazing features. 

Do you remember the hysteria about how the iPhone changed its mapping solution? Outrage followed. A few weeks later, everyone decided, “Hmm, this is pretty good after all.” Well, this new mapping solution had its origin in my own TomTom antique that is now seriously with the times.

It’s astonishing if you think about it. No one born less than ten years ago will ever have to experience the sense of anxiety and fear that comes with spatial disorientation (unless, of course, he forgets his device). This fear had shaped my life and my pattern of living in ways that I had not entirely realized until it was fixed by technology made available through the private sector. No one in the future will have that same life handicap. 

Another human problem is solved. It should be added to the list of problems solved: widespread malnutrition, common infant death, diseases like scurvy and polio, ignorance of essential facts of life, the inability to communicate with people outside your immediate community, the inability to travel without terrible danger, freezing in winter, and so on. There are millions of problems that vex humanity but people in the private commercial sector are mostly solving them one by one, whenever they are allowed to.  

Now, those of you who know about GPS are immediately objecting: The core technology was a government innovation and it is still maintained by government. But look more closely. The idea behind GPS was an innovation of several scientists working for universities, not government. Government saw its usefulness for espionage and nationalized it, keeping it under extreme secrecy for decades and not letting any commercial companies develop it. 

It was one of the few achievements of the Reagan administration that it finally loosened up in 1983 and gave GPS to the commons. No one cared at the time. The truth is that this event was huge and important. It was just the beginning. Whereas Reagan’s solution kept the best digital real estate for the military, Clinton went even further and unleashed the whole of the energy to the commercial sector. That’s when the innovation and glory began. 

In other words, GPS is like the Internet generally: that is, something that was of little or no benefit to humanity until the government permitted the private sector to go in, energize it, and make it wonderful. And it has changed life for millions, not only for spatial idiots like me but everyone. In the future, and probably in the present, it will seem utterly bizarre to anyone that people would not know where they are or how to get where they want to go. 

For most of 2.6 million years, people had no idea where they were on the globe. The Bible tells us that the children of Israel wandered aimlessly in the desert for fully 40 years. Then about 500 years ago, we had some sense that there were distant oceans and land, and we developed better means to represent these features of the world in 2-D (which we call a map).

Mapmakers became more precise in the 20th century. Now here we are, holding a device in our hands, something available to the masses that not only pinpoints our whereabouts with absolute certainty, but tells us where everything we want is as well. 

In all my reading, I can’t recall anyone drawing attention to this dramatic change in the social order and in our sense of the possible. We have found ourselves. We know where we are—after millions of years of struggle. It’s all happened for each of us only in the last five years.

I recall no big announcement that said: Humanity is hereby saved from being lost! No. Not even the official TomTom website includes a word about the history of the company or its technology. As is typical in the private sector, one finds a striking humility. Entrepreneurs rarely congratulate themselves on the past, but rather constantly look to the future.

Who or what granted unto us this astonishing knowledge of time and place? If you answer that question correctly, you have a sense of what will drive future progress. It was only once government relinquished its monopoly that the commercial marketplace was able to swing into action, make the dream real, and improve the lives of millions of human souls just like me. 

Excuse me while I check in using my FourSquare app, which knows where I am and where I want to be. I need all the help I can get.