20 August 2001
You Are So
Ah, N4851.616 E00217.450 in the Summer! (What, No GPS? Tr�s Unchic.)
The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2001; Page C01
Now you know exactly where you stand. How to get exactly out of your frightened loneliness.
Down from the mountain or up it, back home or away from it, transcending bad neighborhoods and semis sprawled across the Beltway, defying the rain forest and the Mojave Desert -- you can lock on. Simply push a few buttons on your Global Positioning System device and you are re-routed; you are saved.
It is a thing, the hip new thing, the GPS, smaller than a cell phone and just as cute, hooked up to more than two dozen satellites for as little as $100, or as much as the standard equipment on a $65,000 Mercedes.
Latitude and longitude cross so precisely that a high-end GPS can tell you not only what highway you're on, but what lane you're in. And it throws in your altitude.
Beth Wiley of Sterling has one in her new Acura. She kisses her hand and then pats the dash. "I love her, bless her little heart," she says. When astray in an unsettling area of the District, the GPS's calm, cheerful, perky, young female voice led her back to Virginia -- take a left here, a right there -- even though Wiley before had no clue where Chain Bridge was.
"I feel a real personal connection to this car," Wiley says. She specifically thinks the GPS "can do a whole lot of things better than men."
Not only can it replace ignoramuses who won't ask directions, and not only is it reliable, but it always puts you at the center of the universe. On the screen, the dot representing you never moves. The world does, revolving around you. Women who play with the device find that utterly unremarkable. "Well, aren't I the center of the universe?" asks Wiley.
The Department of Commerce expects 4.8 million GPS units worth $8.42 billion to be sold this year. Hundreds of thousands are shipping every month. Still, the question remains.
How many jungle explorers or round-the-world sailors can there be who actually need this toy? This is just a fad, right? This month's Tamagotchis, GigaPets?
No, no, no, says Glen Gibbons, editor of GPS World magazine in Eugene, Ore. You don't understand. "There are three fundamental philosophical questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?
"GPS answers the third of those."
"Are you lost, daddy?" I asked tenderly.
"Shut up," he explained.
-- Ring Lardner, "The Young Immigrunts"
This has been the summer of the GPS device, industry mavens agree. They're everywhere. You can't get out on the Chesapeake without tacking across some sailor braying the distance to the next buoy. In feet. In the fog.
The mountains are clogged with day hikers who don't know latitude from poison ivy but who nonetheless have their eyes glued to a little screen.
"I went hunting once with a guy who had just gotten one," one veteran sportsman reported by e-mail. "He would not shut up about it. 'Now we are 3.1 miles closer to Fish Lake than we were 4 minutes and 9 seconds ago.' I almost shot him."
FAA investigators whisper about the South American airliner that landed in Miami with its avionics scrambled. Twice, they say, the crew had found South Florida with only a hand-held GPS.
Prices are plummeting. The silicon guts of a GPS receiver now cost $15 and continue to drop, opening the market for them to be routinely implanted in watches and cell phones. Connect them to transmitters and you can clamp them to children and even pets, like guardian angels that can always tell you where they are.
The brainstorm for using timed radio signals from several satellites to tell you where on Earth you are goes back to the first beeps from Sputnik in 1957. By the Gulf War, American soldiers were maneuvering in sandstorms and at night even when the locals couldn't, thanks to GPS.
The current $12 billion system of 29 satellites circling the globe from 10,900 nautical miles up was first declared operational in 1994. The floodgates really opened a year ago, in May 2000, when a presidential order allowed civilian users to receive signals with the same accuracy as the military.
Now GPS rigs are revolutionizing golf, displaying the exact distance to the hole, and what hazards are in the way, from the golf cart, shaving points off duffers' handicaps. (Is this a great country or what?) In Ottawa next summer, the prestigious course called the Marshes promises you'll be able to order beer, sandwiches, chocolate bars and Cuban cigars from the cart, and have them delivered to you while you are on the links, thanks to GPS.
GPS devices track wildlife from cougars to salmon. They record the heaves, cracks and booms of volcanoes, icebergs and earthquakes. In Florida, some released felons are forced to wear GPS beacons that track them as they go from home to job. If the ex-con stops to visit a girlfriend, the gadget pages his probation officer. In Spain, plans are afoot to make GPS the guardians of Alzheimer's patients. Increasingly, buried utility junctions, transformers, gas and water mains can tell you where they are, as can freight containers and delivery trucks. In New Haven, the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection recently stopped a company with the marvelously cheesy name of Acme Rent-a-Car from charging customers $150 every time the car's onboard GPS system detected them speeding.
None of this, however, explains the booming consumer market.
The fastest-growing segment of the market is people who crave "peace of mind," says Pete Brumbauch, spokesman for Garmin Corp., a GPS industry leader that shipped 357,000 units in the last quarter. "You're never going to get lost. You're going to find yourself. And then find your way back home. If you're thinking of it in the philosophical sense, that's something."
Michael Hodgson, publisher of Snews, an insider newsletter for the outdoor and fitness industry, says: "There's something primal, very primal. If I could offer you something, saying, 'For a few ounces, you will never get lost,' tell me you will not be buying that. An electronic device guaranteed to give you an emotional hug every time you turn it on. Anywhere in the world."
But the lure of GPS is more nuanced than that. At one end, the hand-held GPS device is unquestionably a fashion statement, the way candy-apple-red Nokia cell phones used to be.
"If you head out to Vail, you'll find people in the parking lot hovering over it, going 'oooooh, cool.' I guarantee it," says Hodgson. You want cool? "It's the same kind of people who like the Royal Robbins shorts, the Ex Officio shirt, the L.L. Bean hat, the Vasque boots, the JanSport day pack. You add to that the Garmin GPS."
Joe Remuzzi, 20, a waiter at McCormick and Schmick's on K Street, drives a '91 Ford Explorer with 275,000 miles on it. The vehicle is worth a lot less than the Alpine AI electronics system he has installed in it. Its GPS is even more impressive than its DVD and television. With 2 million points of interest programmed into it, he says, it can not only tell you what restaurants are around you, but cluster them by cuisine. "Especially when I'm going to concerts far, far away, I'm almost like a local," Remuzzi says. "Like it shows where the Cajun restaurants are. My ex-girlfriend would call ahead to make reservations."
Does it impress the ladies? "It's definitely a wower," he acknowledges.
We're poor little lambs who've lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We're little black sheep who've gone astray,
Gentlemen rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Baa!
-- Rudyard Kipling, "Gentlemen Rankers"
Like all newfangled gear, of course, GPS can drive you nuts. The cheap ones aren't much fun, and the fun ones aren't much cheap. Buy yourself a $350 hand-held and you discover that real oh-wow only comes with $250 more software, and it still doesn't talk.
Even the expensive devices are idiosyncratic. Wiley's GPS took a downtown phone number and, impressively enough, from that alone laid in a course from Herndon to the office. Unfortunately, it was also a little simple-minded, ignoring a few of the most direct roads and bridges.
Most GPS gizmos today are just passive receivers, like a portable radio, telling only you where you are. To broadcast your location to others, you have to attach it to a cell phone or a wireless transmitter. Much of the more sophisticated gear is still fledgling. It has awesome privacy implications. And the Batmobile systems like OnStar that link you and your GPS to a human operator are not cheap.
There are also metaphysical dangers to knowing too much. A GPS receiver can put you at the center of the world, but it can also demonstrate how very small you are.
As Douglas Adams projected in "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe":
"The Total Perspective Vortex is the most savage psychic torture a sentient being can undergo. . . .
"When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says 'You are here.' "
There's a somebody I'm longing to see,
I hope that she turns out to be
Someone who'll watch over me.
-- Ira Gershwin, "Someone to Watch Over Me"
We are far enough along in the cultural revolution, nonetheless, to filter the noise and interpret the signals. Some of those show that GPS is indeed connecting people to each other -- and creation -- more deeply than its inventors might have imagined.
At www.confluence.org is a project to sample the world. It's a place where people gather to record their visits to various intersections of whole degrees of latitude and longitude all over the planet. Take 39 degrees north, 77 degrees west, which is a mile and a half from the Silver Spring Metro stop, less than eight miles from the White House. People now visit it like a pilgrimage. They record the view they find of the winding Long Branch creek, and the children's playground of the Flower Branch Apartments on Piney Branch Road, and post their stories and photos to the Web.
"Back in 1995, a friend convinced me to buy a GPS, but I didn't have a purpose for it," says Alex Jarrett, 26, who created the Degree Confluence Project when he lived in New Hampshire. "So I went out in the woods on a rainy day."
He noticed he was near an intersection of major lines of latitude and longitude, 43 north and 72 west, and he decided to see what was there.
"The most prominent feature was an odd-shaped tree. And a swamp. Lots of snow. It was in February. I just remember everything about the land and the trees in the area. All the adventure." He went back and posted it to the Web.
As other people began to find out about the project, they added their descriptions and photos of the "confluences" they visited. Now you can go there and find out what Kansas is like. "You have all these stereotypical ideas in your head," says Jarrett. "But if you look at 37 north, 96 west, there are all these beautiful trees and rocks."
By now, the project has caught on in amazing ways. All of the confluences in Poland have been visited. Germany is complete. Over a thousand confluences have been visited and recorded, including a little more than half of those in the United States. (There's an awful lot of Alaska, Texas, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas left to go.) Globally, more than 10,000 confluences -- not counting those in the oceans and polar regions -- are yet to be recorded, including a great deal of Brazil and Africa, although there are now eight people around the world handling new reports, which are coming in at five or six submissions a day.
"People just rave about the sense of accomplishment," Jarrett says. "Their heart is racing as they see the numbers count down" on the GPS and they suddenly realize they are there. It's a modern version of planting the flag at the North Pole. One contributor, Danny Strickland, makes a point of talking to the people who live at, say, 33 north and 91 west, in Mississippi. "It makes it more than just the photographs of physical surroundings. It tells you what the cultural surroundings are," Jarrett says.
"A big part of it is you're sharing it with other people. You put up the photos of you and this place, and write a story of how you felt, and what happened. A whole bunch of people read it. It's a community."
Indeed, if the GPS project has any real magic, it involves locating ourselves cosmically. Ask Larry Woods of Glenmont, who owns three GPS devices and half-jokes that his house is "2.59 miles from Wheaton, one degree east of true north."
"I can see three categories of people who have GPS," he says. The first two are those who need it, and those who simply like it.
"Then there are people who are trying to do something more fundamental. Sort of measuring yourself with respect to the universe. It's like the music of the spheres, trying to be connected in a cosmic sense. There's a lot of beauty to that."
Woods can see how the trail of where he's been that his GPS traces out is like the worm trail a person's entire life leaves in space and time. "I like to be in touch with space and time, energy, momentum," he says. "What I'm really looking for is some way to understand something about the universe.
"Where you are and how fast you're going is the first step. Sort of the best you can do right now."