How GPS makes fools of us all…

One of the things that bothers me about our ever-increasing reliance on technology is the way it distances us from the natural world.  Yes, yes – it makes life easier in all sorts of ways and it would be crazy to turn our backs on it completely, but all that convenience does come at a cost.

This is especially true of GPS.  Have you ever had had the slightly weird experience of allowing the in-car ‘satnav’ to lead you astray on a journey to a place you know perfectly well how to find?  I certainly have.  It’s as if we’re so awed by its usual accuracy and reliability that we daren’t challenge its authority.  GPS can be disabling – reducing us to a state of child-like dependence and making us behave like complete idiots.  In fact it’s worse than that – it can actually weaken our ability to navigate naturally.

Inuit peoples in Northern Canada now worry that young people who have become reliant on GPS can’t safely find their way around in the Arctic wilderness and easily get lost – which is no joke up there.  Their elders, by contrast, just using natural cues like the sun and stars, the wind, the shapes of snow drifts,and the behaviour of the wildlife, can find their way in almost any weather.  Apparently they never get lost even if they sometimes have sit tight for a while when there’s a complete ‘white out’!

Over the last 20 years GPS has come to dominate marine navigation almost completely.  Integrated electronic navigation systems based on GPS are now installed even on small boats.  Basically they offer a ‘moving map’ display on which the vessel is represented by a little boat-shaped icon.  Linked to the GPS – and maybe also to radar and other instruments – these ‘Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems’ (ECDIS) have taken all the hard work out of navigation.  With a click of a mouse you can find out how far you have to go to reach your destination, what the best course is, how long it’ll take to get there, how much current is against you and much else besides.  It’s absolutely brilliant but it’s totally infantilising!  You are turned into a mere consumer of navigational information with no hand at all in the business of generating it.  A glance at the display gives you your precise latitude and longitude – down to the nearrest few meters – and  you don’t even have to raise your head to look at the world outside.

Maybe that’s fair enough if you’re a professional seaman who just needs to get safely from A to B by the fastest route, but there’s something a bit sad about recreational sailors relying on GPS and ECDIS – as they increasingly do.  After all, what’s the point of going sailing, if not to be experience the wonders of the natural world?   The sea is the last great wilderness and there’s nothing more rewarding than to find your way across it with a sextant in your hand.  To fix your position in mid-ocean by taking sights of unimaginably distant stars is a truly sublime experience.  As the first single-handed round-the-world yachtsman, Joshua Slocum, said after finding the Marquesa Islands just where he expected:

To cross the Pacific Ocean … brings you for many days close to nature, and you realize the vastness of the sea. Slowly but surely the mark of my little ship’s course on the track-chart reached out on the ocean and across it, while at her utmost speed she marked with her keel still slowly the sea that carried her. On the forty-third day from land,… the sky being beautifully clear and the moon being ‘in distance’ with the sun, I threw up my sextant for sights. I found from the result of three observations, … that her longitude by observation agreed within five miles of that by dead-reckoning.

To be continued…

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