The Art of Staying Found
It's easy to forget the arbitrary nature of
time--all these hours and minutes being an
invention of the human mind. Nature offers only the
rolling of this planet and its free fall around the
sun. We make up the rest.
To whom do we owe this division of our days into
the hours and minutes that so frantically race
through our lives? The Medieval monks. They
invented the mechanical clock so they would know
when to say their prayers.
And now our lives are ruled by these divisions.
At any moment we can precisely locate ourselves in
the expanse of time.
I thought about this the first time I read about
the new Global Positioning System back in 1983. We
had perfectly segmented time, and now we had a way
to perfectly segment space--to always know
precisely our location on this Earth.
You must have heard of GPS. You can now buy a
small device for less than $100 that receives a
signal from three or more satellites, telling you
exactly where you on Earth are. (It was men who
needed this, of course, because of their
unwillingness to ask directions.)
First developed for the military, GPS was soon
made available to ordinary Joes and Jills. But for
a number of years, the government disallowed GPS
from being very accurate, thinking that any GI Joe
or Jill from another country could use it to very
accurately target us with missiles or the like.
But then they changed their mind--no doubt out
of concern for the ordinary Joes who hated asking
for directions. Today's GPS devices on the market
can tell you your longitude and latitude within 10
So what good is knowing your longitude and
latitude? Frankly, it wouldn't mean much to me. But
it means a lot to the little gizmo in my hand. As
GPS has developed, so have mobile devices, which
now have a huge amount of computing power.
Simply put, companies have dumped a lot of map
data into these devices, such that your handheld
device takes that information and tells you that
you're located at 1000 N Main Street.
One of the major uses is navigation: while
you're driving your car the device shows on a map
where you're located and can give you directions
for wherever you want to go. Some devices even use
voice synthesis: "In one minute turn left on
Hikers, hunters, fisherman, and others also use
GPS to find their way around the wilderness. One
neat feature is the ability to store locations or
"waypoints." Today's devices can typically store up
to 500. Say you're a fisherman and you've found a
hot spot--an exact location that you're eager to
return to. Store it as a waypoint, and the crumbs
will always lead you back. (That's a reference to
the tale of Hansel and Gretel, in case you're
In addition to maps, GPS is increasingly being
used in conjunction with city guides. Let's say
you're on a street corner in Chicago and have a
hankering for Chinese food. Your GPS-enabled device
senses your location and tells you how to get to
the nearest Chinese restaurant.
It was just a little over three years ago that
the government lifted the restrictions on accuracy,
and since then GPS applications have continued to
soar. And like everything else electronic, volume
reduces price, such that GPS will likely soon be
ubiquitous--in every auto and cell phone, for
A colleague has GPS capability on her Pocket PC
and even occasionally uses it on an airplane to see
how fast the plane is traveling and to track its
progress toward her destination. Another colleague
has an electronic motorbike that uses GPS for the
GPS is fun, too. There's even a new sport of
"geocaching": hiding little treasures and then
posting their coordinates on the geocaching website
so that people can use GPS to find them. How
popular is this sport? There are no fewer than 67
caches hidden within 50 miles of Fairfield. The
game typically works like this: you use your device
to find the cache, open it, remove an item and
replace it with something else, and then hide the
cache for someone else to find.
What else is fun about GPS? I read about a
company that sells software that combines GPS with
the Internet, thereby making it possible to have
web sites that are only visible, say, on a
particular park bench.
The possibilities are endless--and it's all
coming soon to a device near you.
You can find a good intro to GPS devices at
Also, there's an excellent intro on how GPS works
A sample navigator/city guide product can be found
© 2003 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.