Like most people, I have my strengths and weaknesses. Regrettably, a good sense of direction is not something I am blessed with. I was reminded of this the other day when my voice activated GPS refused to understand my English accent, so I had to park the car and enter the address I wanted manually. I could write an entire column on my own personal challenges with standardized American Voice Recognition Technology here in the US. I have actually had to resort to handing the phone to my husband or another nearby American accent to get an automated telephone operator to understand what I want! Now that I think about it, sometimes I have a similar situation at say a fast food drive up window where a human Georgian is having similar troubles understanding me.
Anyway, back to my poor sense of direction. As I was born in the late 1960s, I am very much of the generation that was taught and then relied heavily on map reading as a skill. I remember in the early days of my career asking for directions to be faxed to me so I could carefully follow them when heading to a meeting or conference. In fact, I had a glove box stuffed full of these faxes as handy reference material on how to get to my client’s offices. I also had a substantial size collection of maps, especially the famous ‘London A to Z’ (pronounced ‘zed’ not ‘zee’) which showed every one of the thousands of tiny streets and alleys across London, my then- home city of almost 10 million people!
Of course, the invention and utilization of the Global Positioning System (GPS) has changed the world completely. Did you know that the Global Positioning System was invented by the U.S. Department of Defense (D.O.D) and the brilliant physicist and electronics engineer Ivan Getting? Getting was the NYC-born son of Slovak immigrant parents who showed a real talent for science and engineering at an early age. While serving as the vice president of research and engineering at the Raytheon Corporation during the 1950s, he advanced the concept of using an advanced system of satellites to allow the calculation of exquisitely precise positioning data for rapidly moving vehicles, ranging from cars to missiles.
Originally called Navstar, today the GPS is a satellite-based system owned by the United States government and operated by the United States Space Force. It provides geolocation and time information to GPS receivers anywhere on Earth provided that the receiver has an unobstructed line of sight to at least four of its satellites. The GPS does not require the receiving device to transmit any data, and it operates independently of the internet.
Although the United States government maintains and controls the system, it is currently freely available to anyone with a GPS receiver. However, the US government has at times only provided what they call “selective availability”, such as during a war when they have denied access to one or the other sides. This has led to other countries developing their own similar technologies, and today Russian has their Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), China has it’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, India has NavIC, Japan has QZSS, and the European Union has Galileo.
Back in the UK and Europe, we usually refer in general terms to our Galileo system as ‘satellite navigation’ or simply ‘SAT-NAV’. This system is under civilian control, and since Brexit the UK’s participation in the program has become far too complicated to cover in this modest column.
So today every smart phone and modern car comes equipped with the amazing function of a voice directing you to your destination of choice. But is our reliance on this technology (and others) contributing to the dumbing down of society? Have we been lulled into a false sense of security by the reassuring voice of our GPS telling us when to turn right or left, without enough consideration of what is actually around us? An online search shows funny and tragic real life examples of how people depended so thoroughly on this technology that observation and common sense get thrown out of the window. A funny one example involves a busload of schoolkids in the UK who wanted to visit Buckingham Palace for the day, but satnav was asked to take them to Buckingham Place, which was a tiny apartment building in a bad neighborhood! The more tragic tales generally involve drivers paying more attention to their GPS than the real road conditions around them and driving into other traffic, or off the end of closed bridges, and the like. Rangers at Death Valley National Park in California see problems resulting from a lack of awareness of real-world conditions so often that they have a name for it: “Death by GPS”.
There is a lot more information from the Smithsonian Institute at www.timeandnavigation.si.edu and also at www.bbc.co.uk I say goodbye this week with a quote from Swedish author Fredrik Backman, which for some reason amuses my husband! “Your grandma always had a terrible sense of direction. She could get lost on an escalator.” God Bless America!