Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture and our Minds


Between Greg Milner’s Pinpoint and my Lehigh summer class, Teaching & Learning with Geospatial Tools, I realize the huge effect GPS (Global Position System) has on our life. Milner’s book is excellent, although the chapters covering the development of the GPS industry are a bit dry, and the book exposed me to ways GPS is used that I never even thought up. It was also good to learn how the whole system works. We take for granted the blue dot on Google Maps or WAZE , and how much went into getting this system up and going.

The US military developed GPS to more accurately drop bombs on its enemies. The 31 GPS satellites orbiting 20,000 kilometers above the earth are controlled and monitored by an air force base in Colorado. I didn’t even know about the NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) the CIA of GPS, which controls the majority of the earth-based monitoring systems that keep GPS accurate and running. The military was slow in realizing the importance of GPS and its civilian applications.

GPS is being used more and more for such things as predicting earthquakes and tsunamis, airplane navigation and landing, tracking criminals, etc. Milner describes the phenomena of “death by GPS” where people follow the commands of a GPS unit to their deaths, whether off a bridge under construction or little-used roads in remote mountains where they become stuck and die. Relying on GPS has changed humans’ sense of place and the mental maps in our brains. For me, growing up without GPS, I rely on paper-based maps, landmarks and always knowing which direction is east/west/north/south. Recent generations may be losing this sense according to some experts and brains do not generate the connections for place sense like they used to. There is a lot of science in the book and some sections are full of acronyms and abstract topics. The latest advancement in GPS is accurately mapping the shape of the planet (it is more like a squashed grapefruit) and the minor changes caused by earthquakes, tides, etc.

I am interested in how GPS can be used in my field of education and learning analytics. I would like to do a study of tracking the movements of school leaders and maybe even teachers and students to see where we spend our time. Am I in my office for too long? Are there sections of the classroom or building that I am not getting to? Where should I be spending most of my time? Universities are tracking students’ time in the library and seeing if there is any correlation to failures. The book and class inspired me to apply for an EARCOS action research grant.

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