Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What put GPS on the map?

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WASHINGTON -- Big Brother's big brother -- the author of one of the great blessings and most potentially insidious curses of our 21st-century lives -- is a 78-year-old engineer-educator-officer-dreamer-emeritus named Bradford W. Parkinson, a straight arrow out of the United States Air Force by way of Stanford University, the Steve Jobs of GPS.

Forty years ago this summer, in what he remembers as a tense and stifling weekend parley in the Pentagon, Professor Colonel Doctor Parkinson chaired the military mind-meld that conceived and authorized the launching of a volley of satellites that could pinpoint -- maybe even to the nearest quarter-mile! -- anyone on the surface of planet Earth who was equipped with the appropriate receiver, the appropriate security clearance and a PhD in triangulation.

"The innovator," he declares in a discourse at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, paraphrasing Machiavelli, recalling the fractious conception of global positioning, "has for enemies all who have done well under the old condition and lukewarm defenders who may do well under the new."

Few -- perhaps too few -- enemies remain. Back then, you might remember, the rest of us lost souls had nothing to navigate with save Perly's Map Books, our wives' intuition, and TripTiks from the CAA. But GPS changed everything, and not just in the driver's seat. Now there are six hundred million units in operation worldwide, accurate, in their creator's words, "down to a snail's eyebrow."

Bradford Parkinson enumerates some of the most helpful applications: air-traffic control; fire, law-enforcement and ambulance dispatch; search-and-rescue (even underwater); finding lost toddlers, Alzheimer's patients and back-country hikers; recreational geo-caching; tracking soldiers, warships and hydrogen bombs; pinpoint control of industrial robots, domestic livestock and farm tractors (plowing at night!), and many more.

"Pretty darn surprising," Mister GPS ejaculates.

In the beginning, Bradford Parkinson tells us, the first experimental global positioning unit was carried on a military aircraft, monitoring signals beamed upward from four big boxes on the ground. The synchronous satellites didn't go up for another five years, and it wasn't until September, 1983 -- two weeks after the Soviet Air Force swatted down a misguided Korean airliner and killed 269 innocent people -- that Ronald Reagan authorized its use by the American public.

Now, GPS is so precise in three dimensions that space-borne measurements of instabilities in the Juan de Fuca Plate -- subtle precursors of the earthquake that someday will obliterate Vancouver -- are accurate to the tenth of a millimeter, which is thinner than the backslash on your iPhone.

It is so commonplace and (naively) trusted that, when I was living in the U.S. Southwest, it was common to hear of a group of greenhorn motorists who followed their GPS unit until the coyote trails it was registering as freeways ended on the lip of a 1,000-foot cliff in Utah's Grand Staircase.

But it is such a poor substitute for diligent human supervision that, two weeks ago, a 19-year-old delinquent-on-probation who was wearing a GPS anklet shot 13 people (none yet fatally) a couple of blocks north of the U.S. Capitol while Washington police recorded his block-by-block movements, but not his intentions or his deed.

Sitting in the audience at Air and Space, I begin to wonder if all humans soon will have GPS transponders implanted in their brains at birth.

I scroll through the ramifications: no more mass graves of faceless victims or Tombs of Unknown Soldiers; no more governors of South Carolina canoodling in Argentina while claiming to be hiking the Appalachian Trail. No more Bob Segers sneaking away with their girlfriends to practice night moves out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy; no more stars of Buckwild getting lost and dead in the West Virginia mud at three o'clock in the morning.

No more confusing me for Alan Abel, the professional practical joker. (Diapers on dogs, fake obituaries, one-way cruise tickets for suicides.)

"What hath God wrought?" pecked Samuel F. B. Morse at the birth of the telegraph. But who gave Bradford Parkinson the right to know where we are all the time?

"Criminals know they're being tracked and they don't want to be," he snaps when I ask him why people should not be allowed to vanish from view if they choose to. "Teenagers probably have a similar view of life."

But escape is possible. I click on a site called thesignaljammer.com and discover a $120 gadget that is said by its seller to be "a popular item with sales personnel, truckers, and delivery drivers, who wish to take lunch or make a personal stop outside of their territory or route off the radar."

"Isn't it natural to want to disappear sometimes?" I ask the Father of GPS.

"Most of us are uncomfortable with someone following us all the time," he allows. "But the real answer for why these things exist is that some people in China discovered there's a market for this."

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 J4

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