How GPS became too big to fall out of the sky


My father-in-law is one of those increasingly rare creatures: a complete GPS refusenik. After the best part of a lifetime of learning to read printed maps he is, understandably, loathe to accept that something so culturally significant has, in the space of 10 years, virtually become obsolete technology. We’ve all had that feeling about technology. I have the same relationship with Apple Music; after 30 years slowly accreting your album collection, it’s a bit galling when somebody comes along and offers you the entire history of recorded music. How are we supposed to assess potential friends and partners if we can’t leaf through their album collection? “Anyway,” he says. “But what will you do when GPS breaks down?” he asks.

Well, probably contemplating far more worrying things than trying to get to Wales in my car, such as the collapse of civilisation, if a new book, Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds, is right. Global positioning has become so fundamental to the world’s economy that it is simply no longer feasible to let it fail.

My partner who, unlike me, spent some of her formative years tramping round rain-sodden hills doing her Duke of Edinburgh award, has inherited some of her father’s techno-antipathy. She has, when we’re  on a long car journey, an infuriating tendency to decide she knows better than the satnav and just go with her instincts. I was struck by this on a recent long trip to Cornwall when, after a haphazard journey mixing up guesswork and technology, we arrived within a few minutes of what the satnav had predicted right at the very start.

As a congenitally incompetent map reader, I only know the relief that I now never have to drive around in circles. Of course, there are plenty of extreme stories about people getting lost in the mountains or driving off into the desert using a satnav. But that’s an example of man-bites-dog-syndrome: you never hear about the millions – possibly by this time billions – of uneventful technology-assisted trips, just like you never hear about Alsatian dogs that live perfectly peaceful lives; only the ones that attack somebody 

But according to Tim Harford in a recent Guardian article about the dangers of turning over control of the world to computers, we are metaphorically (and perhaps – to some extent – literally) driving towards a brick wall. As he explains using a commercial airliner as an example, when we allow technology to deskill us, there is serious trouble ahead.

Perhaps my father-in-law will have the last laugh after all.