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From Astrolabe To GPS: Mapping Our Lives Now

A deep history of maps and navigation, from the ancient Polynesians to the pinpoint GPS on your smart phone now and the pinpoint tracking to come.

In this photo taken Saturday, March 22, 2014, a relative of Chinese passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines, MH370, presents a slideshow showing a map of the route the missing plane took at a hotel meeting room in Beijing, China. The words on top reads "2. About the issue of time." (AP)

In this photo taken Saturday, March 22, 2014, a relative of Chinese passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines, MH370, presents a slideshow showing a map of the route the missing plane took at a hotel meeting room in Beijing, China. The words on top reads “2. About the issue of time.” (AP)

For thousands of years, figuring out the shape of the world – the shape of its oceans, its mountains, the paths of its rivers, the shoals in its seas – was a nearly overwhelming challenge for humans.  We used all kinds of crude maps and early tools to find our way, to know where we were.  Today, we hit the GPS and location is instant.  The terrain is known.  It’s on file.  Now, the tools have turned around to map us.  At every moment of every day.  Often whether we like it or not.  This hour On Point:  tech writer Hiawatha Bray on the great story of maps and navigation, from mapping the Earth to mapping us.

– Tom Ashbrook


Hiawatha Bray, technology reporter for the Boston Globe. His new book is “You Are Here: From The Compass To GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves.” (@watha)

David Petersen, vice president of mobile advertising at YP, a search and advertising company. (@djpetersen)

Udi Dagan, founder of Split, the “anti-social” app.

From Tom’s Reading List

Associated Press: Va. professor champions GPS tracking shoes – “The GPS shoe and insole have all sorts of potential ramifications, and the word is spreading. During Super Bowl week, Carle met with the NFL Retired Players Association, many of whose members are believed at risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.”

Kirkus Review: Review: ‘You Are Here’ -- “Early sailors relied on the wind and waves to get their bearings. In Europe, maps first appeared on Spanish cave walls 14,000 years ago. Today, ‘mankind has essentially solved the problem of location’ due to a remarkable spate of navigational innovation in the 20th century, much of it prompted by the demands of the two world wars.”

Boston Globe: Can Mass. ocean robots help find missing Malaysian jet? – “Can a fleet of undersea robots designed in Massachusetts help solve the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? They’ve done this kind of thing before. In 2011, robot subs from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution tracked down the remains of an Air France plane that had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean two years earlier. Now, the Navy is sending a robot built by Bluefin Robotics Inc. in Quincy to Australia, in the latest effort to track the Malaysian jet.”

Read An Excerpt From “You Are Here” By Hiawatha Bray

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  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    Google Earth (formerly Keyhole) is absolutely astounding. It is a 3D map, and it will become a geographically linked encyclopedia.

  • joeaverage21

    I can’t imagine why anyone WANTS live advertising while you travel down some street. We are already inundated by advertising. Why sign up for even more? This is one small reason why my cell phone only makes phone calls.

    • RealEstateCafe

      Yes, posted this question to Twitter: .@OnPointRadio @YP Better ads? Why not turn location tracking around, let consumers send their own #RFP: Request for proposals? #VRM #pCloud

  • J__o__h__n

    I hope that caller was a plant from some marketing firm and not an example that there are actually people who want to be tracked and marketed to at all times. I don’t want the Big Brother discount.

    • joeaverage21

      THAT! What you said. This is as bad as than Big Brother. Why can’t we access these services without the advertising? Okay – I’m in a park or a store – why do I have to sign up to be tracked?

    • RealEstateCafe

      Yes, posted this on Twitter: .@OnPointRadio @watha Pls address #Privacy, any apps designed to prevent unauthorized #Stalker Apps, eg. #realestate sites tracking buyers?

  • Brian

    I wonder if the author can find his bed without his phone?

  • Mari McAvenia

    Mapping for trapping. If the big trackers are the Elmer Fudds of this brave new electronic world then we ought to be the Bugs Bunnys if we want to retain any privacy at all.

  • joeaverage21

    Are they responding to the comments now? We mention ads and he mentions ads? ;)

  • Ellen Aronson

    It seems that our society is moving more towards mapping and tracking without consideration for privacy and the right to keep the manipulation of marketers out of our lives. It’s amazing how easily people seem to give up their personal information for a bit of convenience. We are heading down a slippery slope to a future where everyone will be tracked and monitored.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    GPS *is* like a map, and while both can be wrong (at times) the GPS can be corrected with periodic updates. GPS has two big advantages over maps: the first is that it knows where you are on the map, and moves the map as you move. The second is that it talks to you (if you want it to) and this means that a second person is not needed to read the map to navigate as you drive.

    So, maps and GPS help us learn more about our surroundings. Just because the GPS is different than a paper map doesn’t mean we stop learning where we are.

    • JS

      GPS doesn’t have to mean we stop learning where we are, but I am afraid that’s exactly where things are headed for the general population. When using GPS in a car, you have no reference to where you are and merely follow the “Voice”. In order to see which road to turn on you need to be zoomed in quite closely, and so you lose the larger map needed to situate yourself in the larger world.

      With a paper map you know your heading north, towards this city, next to that river, away from that mountain range, etc.

      People growing up with GPS will have less and less of a situation awareness of the geography around them.

  • homebuilding

    Tom, how about simply taking a position against perpetual tracking and the gross level of gimmick dependence that’s washing over us?

    We already have many people who simply are not accomplished or skilled in many of the basics in life–and they’d be lost souls with their limited background.

    Primary pilot training often involves taking students to altitude, whilst concentrating on various aspects of airplane operation–and then things are quickly shifted as the instructor tells the student to take the plane to the home airport (as the instructor turns off ALL navigational instruments).

    GPS dependent younger folks have a great deal of difficulty with this type of exercise, as they’ve aborted aspects of their own situational awareness. There are, thankfully, plenty of other students who have spatial relationship abilities and continue to assign importance to them.

  • hennorama

    Hiawatha Bray’s enthusiasm for this topic is refreshingly contagious.

  • Dave Lister

    When technology changes, especially when it
    changes faster than the average person can keep up with, someone will always figure out a way to misuse it and those attempting to keep control of their personal data, will always be a step or two behind – that’s if anybody cares about control of their personal data.
    I don’t know what the reason is for people being OK with simply allowing every app or device to gather data on them is. I just know that there’s been a big sea change since the first internet users, people who use screen names (Lister is not my real name) and more than likely, fake or junk email addresses, or fill in false information on facebook profiles and the generation that just blithely gives away every detail of their existence to anyone who asks. (and to a lot of people who didn’t ask and don’t want to know).

    I wonder about these people. I wonder where it will lead. Corporations and governments have such a huge advantage
    over the individual. Making data gathering as hard as possible
    for them is the least we should do.

  • msrichards

    A wonderful new book on this topic is “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way” by John Edward Huth.
    He spoke at the Arnold Arboretum on 11/18/13 – fascinating story.

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