The Circuit of Culture of the GPS Personal Navigation Device (Part 2)

III. A Complex Techno-militar-scientific-media System (production)

After the World Wars of the 20th century and during the Cold Ward, the United States of America became the most powerful country of the world and the leader in the production of global culture. After the falling of the Berlin wall in 1989, it became clear that the USA was the hegemonic power of a globalized world. The Gulf War of the 1990s, where Personal Navigation Devices (PNDs) were first showcased, confirmed the existence of a powerful American and global networked system of production. The military, the technology industry, the universities and science research centers, the telecommunication infrastructure, and the entertainment media integrated such system. Many of the cultural products coming from this system have proved to successfully integrate the military, corporate, and leisure interests of a late capitalist and modern society.

The emergence of the PND as a commodity illustrates how this complex system of production works. Although it was until the 1990s when the device was tested during an international war and entered the popular imagination, the design and the implementation of a global infrastructure that supports PND services took several years. In the search for developing an accurate and precise universal navigation system that could be used during an international war, the USA Department of Defense officially started the Global Position System (GPS) project in 1973. The system was designed to provide reliable location and time anywhere in the planet Earth and in all weather conditions.

Spending billions of dollars in its development, the USA declared the GPS operational in 1989. Three segments conform the GPS system: a space segment composed of 24 satellites (nowadays 32) in medium Earth orbit that broadcast signals continuously with information about their position and about the exact time of their atomic clocks. A control segment composed of a network of master stations on the earth’s surface that track the flight paths of the satellites (stations in Hawaii, Kwajalein, Ascension Island, Diego Garcia, Colorado Springs and Cape Canaveral), dedicated ground antennas, and dedicated monitor stations (England, Argentina, Ecuador, Bahrain, Australia and Washington DC). The GPS receivers that obtain the signal transmitted by satellites compose the third segment. They are able to process the different computations and determine the exact location on the Earth (delivered in longitud/latitud coordinates). The receivers have an internal clock, an antenna, and a microprocessor, and come in different presentations, such as the PND.

Once the GPS system was finished and working, the USA government opened it to world wide civilian use in 1994 allowing the creation of an international industry of GPS receiver manufacturers. Some of the principal manufacturers are Navman, TomTom, Garmin, Mio, Navigon, Magellan Navigation, and TeleType. Because GPS receivers require maps in order to visualize the exact position that they calculate, the manufacturers had to negotiate with geographic companies and acquire or produce huge databases of geo-information. Usually, although every PND comes with maps of the world installed by default, those maps are very general and if the user wants detailed geographic information of a place it has to purchase it ad hoc.

Alternatively, there is also the possibility of uploading to the PND open/free geo- information as the one available through the Open Street Map project that is created and edited by amateur mappers from around the world. For the USA, there is also the option of using the public data collected by the US Census Bureau TIGER/Line program which contains limited road information of the country. In general, most governments do not release their geographic information for free, and several mapping companies have specialized in the production and maintenance of Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

IV. Worldwide Civilian Service (regulation)

On May 1, 2000, USA President Bill Clinton told the public that

“the decision to discontinue Selective Availability is the latest measure in an ongoing effort to make GPS more responsive to civil and commercial users worldwide (…)This increase in accuracy will allow new GPS applications to emerge and continue to enhance the lives of people around the world.”

Removing the Selective Availability of the GPS signal was the final regulatory step in the development of PND devices as a global commodity. Although since 1990s, civilians started to have access to GPS receivers, the signal available for them was intentionally degraded (corrupted) limiting their precision to an area of 100 meters. It was not after the Clinton declaration of 2000 that the Standard Positioning Service became available to civilians, allowing them to have an approximately precision of 20 meters. This fact, triggered the development of many civilian applications in commerce, science, emergency services, map-making, navigation, recreation (games), tourism, geotagging, among others.
Since the Global Positioning System is owned and operated by the USA Government as a national resource, the USA military has the ability to deny GPS service to potential adversaries on a regional basis. Even the highest quality signal, also known as the Precise Positioning Service, continues to be reserved for USA and allied military users. These facts reveal how the techno-economic-military power of the USA has the ability to control world trade, travel, global telecommunications, and commercial remote sensing, using its resources located in the outer space. As Barry Posen argues in his article Command of the Commons The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony, “command of space allows the United States to see across the surface of the world’s land-masses and to gather vast amounts of information.” (9)

V. A Bicycle Under the Moon (consumption)

As with other electronic commodities developed initially by the military, especially the ones that are related to information networks, the PND is consumed by civilians in ways that could be understood both as exercise of freedom and subordination to control. On the one hand, the users of the PND can engage in exploratory and adventure practices such as hiking a mountain, sailing the open sea, mapping their neighborhood, helping to locate victims of an earthquake, or simply finding an address in a foreign country. On the other hand, they can be tracked and followed, loosing their privacy and exposing themselves to the dense information networks.

In the global capitalist information society, consumers/users of digital networked technology always face the dilemma of entering a network where they could be monitored and at the same time they could be free. For instance, since the 1990s, almost every computer user connected to the Internet could be monitored and his/her activities tracked. This kind of digital consumer paradox has become more evidently with the advances of mobile GPS technology and the possibilities of tracking bodies in motion.

Two years ago I decided to buy a PND, a Garmin e-Trex Legend, for $100. I decided to become a user of this technology because, on the one hand, I wanted to experiment with locative media and record my movements in space (cities, towns, forests) as if they were doodles. On the other hand, I also wanted to participate in the Open Street Map (OSM) project that intends to create a free map of the world. Although there are many forms of contributing to the OSM, I was fascinated by the way in which amateur mappers were sharing their GPS traces and using them to edit the map of their towns, countries, and cities. Coming from Colombia, a country with limited free geographic information, I had experienced several times in my life the frustration of not having maps of the areas that I was exploring. Furthermore, as an active contributor of the Wikipedia project, I was decided to contribute to another community that was embracing a commons based peer-to-peer model of production.

My consumption/use of the PND device relies in the practice of freedom and play. I have been using the device essentially for recording walking and bicycle journeys and drifts. I am aware of the limitations of visualizing a dot on a flattened map of the world. Because of that, I am more interested in the lines that one can trace and record while being in motion. Although it is true that it is not necessary to have a visualization of the movement on a map to enjoy our sense of place, it is interesting to use the PND as a drawing tool. Furthermore, I have always enjoyed being an amateur mapper, and having a PND helps me to identify and mark, with satellite precision, the location of relevant places. Although I could have done that with a pencil and paper, the recording of the movement in real time and with such precision, somehow empowers the user/consumer, and makes the information more easily to share with others.

For instance, above is the drawing from a bicycle journey that I traced on Saturday, April 9, 2011. I had to go from my home in 45 St with Duval St, to the Maps Room in the basement of the PCL library at UT-Campus. Instead of taking the usual linear route that follows the bicycle track on Duval Street, I took an alternative route that allowed me to explore the Hyde Park neighborhood, and draw on its surface (or at least in the imaginary surface of the map projection). Following open space paths such as alleys, parks, and parking lots, I finally arrived to an especial spot in Austin that have not been marked in Open Street Map yet, and that did not appear even in the commercial and proprietary Google Maps. At 30° 18′ 15.14″ North of the Equator, and -97° 43′ 52.84″ West of the Prime Universal Meridian in Greenwich, at an altitude of 619 feet over the sea level, I parked my bike under the white light generated from the top of a metallic structure. I marked a waypoint in my PND and digitally entered a name for this spot: Moon Tower.

Analyzing the circuit of culture in which the Personal Navigation Device is situated reveals not only the complex techno-military-industrial-scientific-entertainment-communication network that supports this artifact, but also the variety of identities and consumer practices that can be developed with it. The PND is both a military and a civilian device that fosters both control and freedom.

As we move towards a mobile era in where computing and informational networks become ubiquitous, the use of personal navigation devices (PNDs) is not only becoming more popular but has also started to become embedded in other electronic gadgets such as smart phones and computers. Because the PND is a communication/navigation artifact still in development, the commercial, entertaining, civic, and artistic uses of this technology will continue to shape new cultural meanings and practices.


Clinton, Bill. Improving the Civilian Global Positioning System (GPS). May 1, 2000. Office of Science and Technology Policy. Retrieved April 7, 2011.

Berg Insight. Personal Navigation Devices. Executive Summary. November 2010 Retrieved April 5, 2011

De Certeau, Michel. The practice of everyday life /Arts de faire. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1988, c1984.

Du Gay, Hall et al. Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, London ; Thousand Oaks [Calif.] : Sage, in association with The Open University, 1997.

Haklay, M., Singleton, A. and Parker, C. “Web Mapping 2.0: The Neogeography of the GeoWeb.” Geography Compass, 2: 2011–2039. 2011.

Hemment, Drew. “Locative Arts.” Leonardo, Volume 39, Number 4, August 2006. The MIT Press. pp. 348-355

Kaplan, Caren. “Precision Targets: GPS and the Militarization of U.S. Consumer Identity.” American Quarterly, Volume 58, Number 3, September 2006, The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 693-714

Mitchell, William J. Me++. The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2004.

Posen, Barry. “Command of the Commons The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony.” International Security, Volume 28, Number 1, Summer 2003. MIT Press. pp. 5-46

Speed, Chris.”Developing a Sense of Place with Locative Media: An “Underview Effect.”” Leonardo, Volume 43, Number 2, April 2010. The MIT Press. pp. 169-174

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