William Rankin Profiled

Over at the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Global History Forum, Timothy Nunan has a long article about Yale history of science professor William Rankin, author of last year’s After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century (book website, publisher, Amazon, iBooks) and the themes—the shifting relationship between map and territory, for example—addressed by that book. [WMS]

Previously: After the MapWilliam Rankin, Author of ‘After the Map,’ Interviewed.

Satnavs and ‘Switching Off’ the Brain

More on the impact of GPS on our cognitive function. A new study identifies brain activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal lobes while navigating city streets—areas of the brain involving memory, planning and decision-making. There was no additional brain activity from the control group (using satnavs). The University College London news release on the study suggests that using a satnav “switches off” those parts of the brain, but it may be more fair to say that it fails to switch them on.

It’s hardly groundbreaking news to suggest that not having to think about where you’re going results in less activity in the areas of the brain that involve remembering things and deciding what to do next, but experimental research does need to establish such things. [The Truth About Cars]

William Rankin, Author of ‘After the Map,’ Interviewed

after-the-mapYaleNews interviews William Rankin, who’s a history of science professor at Yale, about his book, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, July 2016), which, the article says, “explores, among other topics, the shift in maps from a ‘gods-eye-view’ to the embedded experience of GPS.” A sample:

It would be tempting to say that life is just getting better and better because now we can do all of these amazing things with GPS that we couldn’t do with paper maps. We can find new restaurants anywhere in the world, just by following directions on a screen! But it’s also tempting to say that we’re losing our sense of place, our ability to navigate on our own, or even the joy of getting truly lost. It’s sad to think that our children won’t pore over maps the way we did when we were young.

There’s something to be said for both of these responses, but rather than just choosing between progress and decline I’m more interested in how GPS is changing what’s possible. It’s possible now to connect a series of disconnected points relatively easily. On a personal level, this means being able to travel between A and B without knowing anything in between. You can’t do this with a paper map, since navigating outside the map’s boundaries is quite difficult. But at the same time, we are definitely giving up the kind of in-depth knowledge of a larger neighborhood that we get from traditional maps. So it’s not really about life getting better or worse, but about exchanging an intensive understanding of a particular area with this much more expansive ability to connect a series of points.

The interview also includes a short video (see above). [Tony Campbell]

Previously: After the Map.

Continental Drift, GPS and Europe

In response to the news that Australia has to correct its GPS coordinates to account for continental drift, the Ordnance Survey blog examines whether Great Britain will have to do the same. “The situation for us (and most of Europe) is not so bad. Europe’s GPS compatible datum, ETRS89, is fixed to the European tectonic plate at the time 1 January 1989 and moves by around 2.5 cm each year. In theory, GPS-derived coordinates are now about 70 cm away from where they should be in the ETRS89 system.”

Australia to Correct Tectonically Induced GPS Discrepancy

Decades of continental drift mean that GPS coordinates in Australia are off by approximately 1.5 metres (5 feet), which has implications for self-driving cars and other applications that require very precise positioning. See coverage from Atlas ObscuraBBC NewsPopular Mechanics and the Washington Post.

Basically, the discrepancy comes from the fact that GPS is based on the Earth’s core rather than any point on the surface, whereas local coordinates are based on a geodetic datum—in Australia’s case, GDA94 (North America uses NAD83)—that is based on a fixed point on the surface. But with plate tectonics, points are not fixed: Australia moves northward at seven centimetres a year.

On 1 January 2017 Australia will shift its coordinates north by 1.8 metres, overshooting things a bit so that the continent and GPS will be in sync by 2020, with plans to keep the datum continually updated after that.

After the Map

after-the-mapWilliam Rankin’s After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century is out this month from the University of Chicago Press (AmazoniBooks). The book’s website explains in depth what it’s about, and makes all the book’s illustrations and data available for free download. [GIS Lounge]

This book can be read at two scales. Narrowly, it is a history of the mapping sciences in the twentieth century that situates technologies like GPS within a longer trajectory of spatial knowledge. But more expansively, by connecting geographic knowledge to territorial politics and new ways of navigating the world, it is also a political and cultural history of geographic space itself.

I’ve posted a few of Rankin’s earlier projects for the Radical Cartography website on The Map Room; see for example City Income Donuts and The World’s Population by Latitude and Longitude.

See also: Map Books of 2016.

Pinpoint Now Out

pinpointGreg Milner’s Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture and Our Minds is out this month from W. W. Norton. (The British edition, published by Granta, comes out in July.) Pinpoint explores the social impact of GPS, which sounds very interesting. I’ll have to lay hands on a copy. Reviews: Will Self in the GuardianKirkus Reviews and Maclean’s. Amazon, iBooks.

Previously: ‘Could Society’s Embrace of GPS Be Eroding Our Cognitive Maps?’

McKinlay: ‘Use or Lose Our Navigation Skills’

Writing in Nature, Roger McKinlay notes the complexity, infrastructure requirements (i.e., cost) and limitations of modern navigation technology and argues that people “should make better use of our innate capabilities. Machines know where they are, not the best way to get to a destination; it might be more reliable to employ a human driver than to program an autonomous car to avert crashes. If we do not cherish them, our natural navigation abilities will deteriorate as we rely ever more on smart devices.” [via]

‘Could Society’s Embrace of GPS Be Eroding Our Cognitive Maps?’

Earlier this month in the New York Times, Greg Milner looked at something that was a frequent subject during The Map Room’s first life: people getting themselves lost by blindly following their GPS units (or satnavs, as the British call them).

Could society’s embrace of GPS be eroding our cognitive maps? For Julia Frankenstein, a psychologist at the University of Freiburg’s Center for Cognitive Science, the danger of GPS is that “we are not forced to remember or process the information—as it is permanently ‘at hand,’ we need not think or decide for ourselves.” She has written that we “see the way from A to Z, but we don’t see the landmarks along the way.” In this sense, “developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes.” GPS abets a strip-map level of orientation with the world.


pinpointMilner is the author of the forthcoming book Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds (W. W. Norton, May 2016): pre-order at Amazon or iBooks.

For another look at how GPS may be affecting our brains’ ability to navigate, see “Global Impositioning Systems,” a long read by Alex Hutchinson in the November 2009 issue of The Walrus, which I told you about in 2011.


Maine Reacts to DeLorme’s Acquisition by Garmin

Local Maine media is reacting to the news that Garmin is buying DeLorme, which is based in Yarmouth. Here’s coverage from the Portland Press Herald, which notes that the Maine headquarters will be maintained, but the map store will close. (Eartha will continue to be open to the public.) There is no news about the future of DeLorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, the paper-based product that started DeLorme off in 1976, which is worrying the Bangor Daily News’s outdoors editor John Holyoke.

Garmin Is Buying DeLorme

Garmin has announced that it is buying Maine-based GPS manufacturer DeLorme. “Garmin will retain most of the associates of DeLorme and will continue operations at its existing location in Yarmouth, Maine following the completion of the acquisition. The Yarmouth facility will operate primarily as a research and development facility and will continue to develop two-way satellite communication devices and technologies. Financial terms of the purchase agreement and acquisition will not be released.” (Presumably that means that Eartha won’t be moved to Olathe.)

Previously: Big Eartha; DeLorme’s Early History; DeLorme Profiled.

GPS and the First Gulf War

Scientific American on how the U.S. military used GPS during the first Gulf War in 1991—the first war in which GPS played a major role. “GPS would change warfare and soon became an indispensible asset for adventurers, athletes and commuters as well. The navigation system has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that the Pentagon has come full circle and is investing tens of millions of dollars to help the military overcome its heavy dependence on the technology.”