These days, it can be almost impossible to get lost. The creation of affordable smartphones has put personal homing beacons into over a billion pockets and pocketbooks, enabling even the most directionally challenged to locate the nearest Starbucks or find their way around a traffic accident. Yet the technology that enables easy navigation was centuries — even millennia — in the making. Boston Globe technology reporter Hiawatha Bray chronicles the evolution of navigational and mapmaking tools and how they have shaped modern society.
First invented to aid in exploration, then to guide instruments of war and to spy on Cold War enemies, location technology is now being used to track regular people. Governments and corporations can follow the movements of citizens and consumers, for peacekeeping or for profit. Over half of the most popular smartphone apps continue to transmit your whereabouts to outside parties such as advertisers or law enforcement, long after you’ve tired of Candy Crush or Angry Birds. Bray’s account, at times exhausting but always informative, clearly conveys the scientific thinking and extraordinary effort that made location tracking possible. It took more than twice as long to complete the network of GPS satellites necessary to pinpoint your place on Earth, for instance, as it did to put a man on the moon.
The book raises concerns about the privacy that so many of us casually trade in during our pursuit of a latte or a faster route to work. Bray advocates for anonymizing features that will allow people to go off the grid from time to time while still enjoying the fruits of technology. That way, you and you alone will know that “you are here.”
Basic Books, $27.99