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The thrill of the fix

Dec 29, 2016

Jerry Richter

To the editor: Technologies are invented and adopted because they make some aspect of human life easier or more efficient. However, ever since Socrates argued almost 2400 years ago that writing was the enemy of memory and wisdom, the benefits of new technologies have been weighed against the loss of the human physical, intellectual and intuitive skills that they supplant. In recent years, technology has evolved so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the changes that it imposes on our innate and learned abilities, talents and our very concept of the world around us.

The rapid growth of GPS technology is probably the best and most recent example of this displacement. In his recent book, Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture and our Minds, Greg Milner notes that U.S. park rangers have coined the phrase “death by GPS” to describe incidents when travelers blindly follow GPS directions onto abandoned roads and become stranded in dangerous and hostile wilderness. I would contend that GPS has had an even greater impact on those who travel the waters of the world rather than its roads.
For several thousand years, humans have been refining ways of finding their way across open water to a desired landfall. These methods ranged from the arcane observational skills and conceptual models of the Polynesian navigators, to the mathematical methods of celestial navigators in the west. All of these methods require varying degrees of skill, judgment, science and art, as well as being subject to variables that are beyond the navigator’s control. For a celestial navigator, a high tolerance for ambiguity is a useful personality trait. Marking a latitude and longitude on a chart and saying “we are here” is frequently more an act of faith than of certainty. GPS has changed all of that, for better and for worse.

The role of a celestial navigator on an ocean crossing is an emotionally rich experience. One becomes attuned to the precession of the celestial sphere as navigational stars are tracked day after day and the sun is held to account daily. The fact that you are plotting your position relative to a point on the earth’s surface to which you are tied by your relationship to a heavenly body, based on the time in Greenwich, U.K., is, in its way, awe inspiring. You are truly a part of the giant clockwork of the universe. The ultimate pride and satisfaction, of course, is making your landfall as planned and predicted.

GPS, even in the form of a simple hand-held model operated on AA batteries, completely changes the navigation picture. There is no longer any uncertainty or anxiety in overcast weather, no need to schedule our activities, including sleep, around star times, no need to suffer the ambiguity of an imperfect fix. A perfect latitude and longitude can be obtained at any time, day or night, by pressing a button and waiting a few seconds for the requisite satellites to be acquired by the device and produce coordinates accurate to within feet. On the other hand, there is no longer a reason for a navigator to feel satisfaction or pride for a perfect fix, or to study and learn the stars and constellations and their movement through the heavens, or even to appreciate the steadfastness of the sun in its daily travel, or essentially, to feel a part of a cosmic scheme. Finally, when the navigator becomes a screen reader, the saddest loss may be of his image as a shaman in the eyes of the crew.

It is interesting to ponder how these technologies — developed to increase the ease with which we can undertake maritime adventures — also negate the very elements of the experience that formerly formed a large part of that adventure. Today, voyagers embarking on an ocean passage as a navigator most likely would not leave the dock without a GPS. However, knowing the limitations of AA batteries and electricity in general in a wet and salty environment, I would also bring along my sextant and almanac. I’d take to heart Kipling’s warning to the master of Nakoda: “The new ship here is fitted according to the reported increase of knowledge among mankind. Namely, she is cumbered end to end, with bells and trumpets and clock and wires, it has been told to me, can call voices out of the air of the waters to con the ship while her crew sleep. But sleep thou lightly. It has not yet been told to me that the Sea has ceased to be the Sea.”

—Jerry Richter is a former U.S. Navy navigator, has worked as a marine surveyor and is based in Pennsylvania. 

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