Keep Watching the Stars

Is GPS Dangerous to Your Health?

GPS systems and apps have made getting lost a thing of the past. But that, scientists say, is not such a good thing for humans hardwired to explore. It makes us, in a word, dumber.

Oatawa/istockphoto

We are addicted to GPS, and this addiction puts us in danger.

I can hear the protests already: What do you mean? I use it all the time, it’s great, I can drive the kids to their sleepover in a neighborhood I’ve never been in before without worry or delay! Where’s the problem?

Bear with me.

It’s true, addiction to a global positioning satellite system (GPS) isn’t as melodramatic or tragic as alcoholism or opioid addiction.

And it’s a fact that GPS is a hugely accurate and important tool. The computer systems that run our financial, communications and power grids are mostly keyed to GPS time signals. The trucks, ships and aircraft that make commerce possible rely on GPS direction. These satellite systems even guide combine harvesters as they slash their way back and forth across Iowa cornfields.

But look what happens when we blindly follow GPS directions. In a suburb of Boston, a woman obeying her GPS drives her car onto the commuter railroad tracks, and barely manages to haul her kids out before the Fitchburg local smashes the car to scrap metal. In Alaska a driver, also mindlessly obeying a device, steers his car off a dock, straight into Prince William Sound. In California, a child dies in Death Valley because of a GPS mistake.

Across the world, a native Londoner hands the cabbie her smartphone, on which is displayed the address to which she wants to go to. The cab driver asks, “Do you know this area, love?” She replies no, she has no need to learn her city, the GPS does it for her. The driver, who has memorized every one of London’s 23,000 streets and byways to earn his license, is shocked.

It’s not just a person-by-person problem. GPS-based systems, which rely on signals from 39 satellites flying in extremely high orbit, 20,000 kilometers above the planet’s surface, are vulnerable because of their signal’s relative weakness. In 2009 the Federal Aviation Administration’s Newark, NJ, air traffic control system, newly converted to satellite tracking, shut down when its GPS feed went dead. This happened every day at roughly the same time. The culprit was eventually located: it was a truck driver, daily cruising the same route near the airport, who had installed an off-the-shelf GPS jammer so his boss, who was monitoring his position, wouldn’t know where he was or when he was taking a leisurely lunch break. A similar incident shut down Newark in 2013.

Even the U.S. Navy, possibly the most technologically advanced force in world history, is taking notice. A decade after removing them from the curriculum, the U.S. Naval Academy recently reinstated courses in celestial navigation for fear that wartime impairment or destruction of global positioning networks would leave Navy commanders, and their ships, aircraft and weapons systems, lost and defenseless.

According to a hacker who works for a European secret service, professional hackers working for a hostile country—for example, China—could shut down most of America’s power grid inside five minutes by corrupting or jamming the GPS time link that coordinates electrical supply networks.

More personal perils exist.

Robotic reliance on GPS-type electronic aids, and associated disuse of the navigational centers in our brain, increase our likelihood of contracting neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to researchers such as Véronique Bohbot at McGill, Tom Hartley at University College London, and Denise Head at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Another, subtler, but possibly just as serious danger stems from such addiction.

Humans evolved and progressed by seeking to explore and understand the unknown. Anthropologists believe the descendants of a few hundred hunter-gatherers, starting in south-central Africa, discovered and populated every corner of the planet except Antarctica in less than 50,000 years. Homo sapiens’ consciousness, wrapped around the hippocampal formation—a neural structure that navigates space, memory, and associated emotions—was perfected in the process.

Exploring the unknown as our ancestors did means, very exactly, not knowing where we are to start with, physically, intellectually or both. It means getting lost.

So what will happen to the hippocampal formation, this amazing organ that navigates not only the world but our memory of the world, our recall of everything, and thus our very identity, when we stop navigating on our own because a machine now does all the navigating for us?

To rely constantly on a GPS-enabled smartphone, which tells us where we are geographically every second of the day, pulls us out of the habit of thinking in the oldest, most human way there is: I’m lost, where should I go now, how do I find my way? It’s not surprising that atrophy and disease result from this sort of intellectual surrender.

To live and breathe with a device that offers instantaneous answers (via Google and similar sites) to questions on a myriad of subjects, yanks us out of the habit of searching independently, exploring on a whim, trying to figure our way through a problem without help.

In a fundamental way, it removes us from the most deeply human process of all.

Of course, none of the arguments cited above mean that we should junk our GPS, our smartphones, and go back to handheld compasses, maps, and paper encyclopedias. Modern navigational technology is too useful and powerful to give up, even had we the choice.

It does mean, however, that we must ensure that we make sufficient effort to explore on our own, with or without the assistance of technology. It means we must allow ourselves to get lost, in a city, a theorem, or in a philosophical text, and sort out direction and destination using our brain as opposed to our smartphone.

And if that means, once in a while, figuring out where the sun is at noon or twilight to ascertain which way we’re heading, as opposed to listening to directions from Garmin—then let’s turn off the phone, stash it in the pocket, and turn our gaze back to the sky.

George Michelsen Foy is the author of Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human, published in May 2016 by Flatiron Books.