Saturday, December 12, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: When Did We Stop Being Afraid of the GPS?

We're watching you...I bought my mom a GPS for her birthday last week. She’s wanted one for over a year now, and I finally gave in and found one for her.

I have these memories of my parents and grandparents fretting over the dangers of a satellite system designed to triangulate your exact global position from a giant array in space. Movies like Enemy of the State (1998) fueled these fires by highlighting the power that the government could have to track and harass innocent citizens like you, me, Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Smart, hard-working Americans could get by with old-fashioned maps, thank you very much!

Yet here is my dad, proud owner of a vehicle with a mounted turn-by-turn navigation system that he uses on almost every non-routine trip, without thought or worry. Here is my mom, lusting over a portable TomTom GPS that she can’t live without. Nearly every smart phone comes with some variety of global positioning software, an innovation launched by QAULCOMM in 2004. Now the GPS is the God of travel, with paper maps being tossed aside in favor of the much smarter computing system, with the ability to adapt if you, the foolish human, fails to follow the device’s brilliant routing plan. It’s almost as if not owning a device with satellite tracking puts you in the minority.

I even know some people who have named their vehicular GPS, and talk about it as if it’s alive. But that’s a step up in creepy.

Commercially, the GPS became available for civilian use in the 90s, but it wasn’t until the 00s that people started dropping their fears and embracing this previously military-only concept. Inspired by an open-armed embrace of technology, I will cite  the loss of privacy and with it, the decline in fear of such a loss as one of the biggest themes of the decade. Other Charge-Aught!!! reflections by my fellow bloggers have noted this trend as they describe the digitizing of data and its subsequent consequences regarding the availability and speed of information. But when you explore all the repercussions of such a revolution, one underlying concept ties all of these decade-trends together is the waning paranoia about personal information, and the GPS is the primary motif.

We seem to have given up the worry that an infrastructure in space exists which, with a small transmitting device, can relay your exact location to any point or any person in the world. It hardly seems strange to our generation. Of course there are hundreds of transmitting devices orbiting our planet, and of course they can see you from space! That’s not science-fiction anymore, it’s commonplace, and it hardly strikes me as odd even as I type it out.

Is it a bad thing that we are so transparent, and that our location at any time can be known so exactly? It’s hard to say at this point in humanity’s development. Whatever the underlying meaning or eventual fallout, however, it has become clear that the freedom of information has brought about a dramatic change in how we feel about privacy.

Oh, and don’t forget to turn right in 200 feet.