By Kirk M. Besmer

Initially, GPS (global positioning system) was a blessing to business travelers and others who found themselves navigating foreign cities and unfamiliar neighborhoods. It was welcomed by outdoor enthusiasts for excursions into unknown wilderness. Given its current ubiquity in smart phones and newer cars, however, using GPS is rapidly becoming the default navigation method for terrestrial travel to new locals in technologically-advanced societies. In Western countries, it has largely supplanted the older method of map reading. We may well be living through a revolution in human navigation, and while the full consequences have yet to be felt, it is worth pausing to consider what GPS signifies and the way in which it conditions how we relate to space, place and travel.

Perhaps the most popular use of GPS is in automobiles. In his fine essay on the topic, Ari Schulman notes that driving a car with a GPS unit separates two formerly united tasks: driving and navigating. One must drive the car, which involves maintaining proper speed and lane position, avoiding hitting things, etc., but one is simultaneously required to guide the vehicle to the desired destination. Both of these tasks demand that one pay attention to one’s surroundings, but with a GPS unit, one can forego the attention required for navigating and focus on the demands of driving the car (GPS and the End of the Road.” The New Atlantis. Spring 2011 pp 4-32.).

Schulman is certainly correct about this, but it seems that more is required when driving with a GPS unit. Having been disburdened of the task of navigating, using a GPS unit urges one to disengage from one’s surroundings in a new way. In fact, it almost requires one to do so. The GPS unit becomes the focal object of one’s gaze, while the territory one is travelling through becomes mere background. Thus, turning on a GPS unit provokes a Gestalt switch in how humans spatially experience their surroundings. This experience is now technologically mediated in a new way. More importantly, this experience is essentially different from that which is offered by the older navigation method, map reading.

mapNavigating with a map at least requires one to orient oneself. In order for it to be useful at all, one must locate oneself on the map and correlate its symbolic representation to one’s actual surroundings. In fact, using a map can be an occasion for one to engage more deeply in one’s surroundings, seeing more acutely crucial distinguishing details. Maps are ways of seeing the world, not only symbolically but actually. Indeed, being lost with a map involves the inability to relate symbolic representations to one’s actual surroundings. It is a human failing. After all, one reads a map, which implies that one can read it well or poorly. On the contrary, one does not ‘read’ a GPS display. Its vision is complete in itself. No interpretation is required. Everything is revealed. It immediately places one at the center of one’s surroundings, the particularities of which are already identified at a location that is known. Thus, with a GPS one never needs to orient oneself. That is always already done when the unit is turned on. Being able to answer the question: ‘Where am I?’ is central to being a human being. More and more that question is being answered with the help of GPS.

It is true that I will always know where I am with GPS, but that knowledge will be abstract, rendered in latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, even if, for practical application, these coordinates are re-interpreted as a street address, a business name, etc. In effect, I will know my precise location on planet earth. This fact reveals the nature of GPS as a location and navigation technology. GPS uses earth-orbiting satellites and time-coded radio signals to deliver its precise readings. This precision is achieved thanks to multiple satellite ‘soundings’ of one’s current location from far above the surface of the earth. Amalgamated and computationally processed, these ‘soundings’ yield an apparent God’s eye perspective of one’s precise position on the planet. This view presents itself as the apotheosis of objectivity. Philosophers call this the ‘view from nowhere.’ Such a view is factually impossible because every view is from somewhere, from some perspective; nonetheless GPS obscures its own perspective, presenting us with a technologically-mediated omniscient view of our movement across the surface of the earth in real time. It is crucial to note that an abstract, conceptualized understanding of space supports GPS technology. Indeed, it was a Newtonian notion of space as a non-relative, absolute expanse that initially informed the impulse to divide and measure the earth in a global grid of latitude and longitude. This occurred long before the advent of GPS; nonetheless, this view of space is assumed in the very operating logic of GPS. In effect, every GPS device is a material manifestation of a view of space that is so common to Westerners that it goes unrecognized. But it is worth pointing out in this context that we never experience absolute space. Rather, it is a conceptualization emerging with modern science. Instead, we always experience concrete, specific places. Moreover, it is tempting but faulty to assume that any specific place is simply a subset of space. A place is distinguished by physical aspects as well as cultural and symbolic meanings. One cannot be reduced to the other. In this context, place and space are different orders. One is experienced directly, while the other must be conceptualized. Place is, thus, primary, while space is derivative. To accommodate the particularity that is the hallmark of placeness, GPS renders one’s current position on the earth as a ‘location’ that is distinguished by exact geological coordinates. It bears emphasizing, however, that a location is not a place. One cannot be experienced, only numerically represented; the other must be experience directly. The difference here is akin to that between a family home – with all its shared memories and meanings – and the street address that represents it. Thus, at the heart of GPS, there is an unavoidable tension between the conceptual abstractions that support its functioning and the concrete aspects of a particular place that it attempts to represent. Occasionally, this tension can be experienced.


Using GPS in a car, for example, can be disorienting, especially for a new user: for although I know that I am a body moving through a material world, the GPS unit represents this movement in the opposite manner. I am represented as an immobile mark on the screen while cartoonish buildings, signs, and landmarks pass me by. It can be disorienting, much like the experience that occurs when one looks out an airplane window at fifteen-thousand feet while the landscape below slowly moves by. Of course, in both instances, I know that my body is actually moving, but I cannot ignore what my eyes seem to tell me: my view appears as stationary and absolute. But the dissonance arises because I am at once this privileged view but also simultaneously a body moving through physical reality.
It is the dissonance between abstract conceptualizations of space and location expressed in GPS-enabled devices and our lived experiences of concrete, specific places and actual travel that reveal a deeper truth about GPS. We are embodied beings inhabiting and moving about physical places, but GPS urges us towards a detached and abstract engagement with our surroundings. Places become denuded locations serving only momentary interests. Undoubtedly, GPS is an effective navigation device, perhaps the most effective thus far created, and it does have its proper place. But its ubiquitous use should be questioned insofar as it urges us to regard all travel as business travelers must – a primarily goal-oriented activity that must be gotten through in the most efficient manner possible. Are we becoming people who look upon all places as so many locations to pass through on our way to a final destination, which itself suffers the same fate and becomes just another location? This may well be the revolution in navigation we are living through. With GPS what we gain in precision we lose in richness. Although it will ensure that I never get lost – at least I will know where I am on the face of the planet – GPS cannot assure me that I truly know where I am or where I am going.