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Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  467 ratings  ·  89 reviews
In the tradition of The Information and The Shallows, Pinpoint tells the story of GPS and how it is affecting our brains, our technology, and our culture.

Over the last fifty years, humanity has developed an extraordinary shared utility: the Global Positioning System. Omnipresent, free, and available to all, GPS powers everything from your phone to the Internet to the Mars Rover. Greg Miln
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published May 3rd 2016 by W. W. Norton Company (first published May 2nd 2016)
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Jun 26, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: math-science
This is not the history of the GPS project--or at least, not much. Instead, it is a punch-drunk weave of examples attempting to convince that the existence of GPS has, or "may be altering the nature of human cognition--possibly even rearranging the gray matter in our head." My first thought: is Mr Milner the last believer in Jean-Baptiste Lamarck?

The beginning recounts the now familiar story of Polynesian Eastern migration via a system that those used to Cartesian space --Captain Cook among the
Dec 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found this book at a bazaar. I had never heard of it before, but I bought it anyway. As someone who's working with GPS, I thought the book might be interesting. I've read a lot of articles about how GPS is bad (which frankly infuriates me), and I thought this book would be more or less the same. Especially after reading the blurb about how GPS might be altering our brains (but what technology isn't?). I expected some GPS bashing and shaming.

I was pleasantly surprised to find how ac
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
Mostly a waste of time. The beginning on Polynesian navigation was fascinating, as was the description toward the end of uses for earth sciences (plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes) and space. But everything in the middle is pretty boring.
Aug 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars

The effective thesis of this book is that GPS is really, really important. It's not as silly or overaggrandized as it sounds—and which is proved by all the detail in here—but the problem is, there's nothing sexy about GPS. So a topic that is, yes, essential to the modern world, and any risk to which should keep us awake at night (especially thanks to lax security), just ends up feeling stretched out, because there isn't that much to say.

The lack of technical minu
GPS is woven into the society of modern life to an astounding degree—much more than I realized. It doesn’t just keep track of location, it also regulates time. The importance of GPS is definitely on par with the internet. Many have suggested that the way we interact with the internet may be changing our brains—and the same may be true for GPS.

Greg Milner’s book provides a fascinating history of the development of the GPS technology. Apparently the Air Force couldn’t imagine a good use for it, w
Sep 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
A surprisingly good book that I picked on a whim. It delves into an amazing array of subjects such as: Geology, Geodesy, Meteorology, Air traffic control, Cartography, Weapons guidance, psychology, orbital mechanics, trigonometry, agriculture just to give a few . All from a small weak signal that the US government thought was going to be useless and the Air Force actively tried to kill on numerous occasions. It shows how private enterprise took a tool the government thought at first was of niche ...more
May 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: tech, non-fiction
This is a fascinating look at how GPS has come to be such a vital part of our modern world, and I definitely learned a lot about the technology and those that predated it.
Feb 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, science
Enjoyable & accessible science writing! This book filled in plenty of gaps in my knowledge that I didn't know were there. My personal interest in any given chapter's subject matter was hit or miss; I would have loved to read more about the cultural changes resulting from so many individuals carrying GPS-enabled devices around. We learn quite a bit about the ethics and legality of law enforcement using GPS to track individuals, but that chapter just touches on the same technology used by empl ...more
Peter Tillman
Good start but stalled. Try again??

Or not. I read some of the critical reviews, here and at Amazon, and I think I'll call it good. The author is no expert, and made some dumb mistakes and silly/nonsensical extrapolations. Or so others think. "Life is Short. Books are Many."
Douglas Lord
Jan 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Quick—guess how many GPS satellites there are up there in space? 100? 200? My wife just guessed 4,000. Well, the answer is 24. All owned and operated by the U.S. military’s 50th Space Wing 2nd Space Operations Squadron. Sixteen monitoring stations keep that shit together day in and day out at 20,000 kilometers up in space. GPS runs more stuff than you know—more than just driving to the Gap over in Willowdale. It does military security, measures the tectonic plates, and plays a huge role in air t ...more
Feb 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
As someone always concerned about privacy while at the same time wanting to utilize the latest in technology, I found this book to be a fascinating and enlightening read. The ethics of GPS as regards privacy and Fourth Amendment rights had been something that had long been bothering me, and I was happy that Milner covered the topic in this book.

The author takes readers on a journey through the beginning of how humans navigated and saw the world into how the use of GPS began with main
May 04, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: geology
Pretty interesting. I really enjoyed the history of the Polynesian explorers, the focus on tectonic plates, and the discussions of earthquakes and tsunamis best. Milner also does a good job of explaining GPS tech. I thought I would be interested in that since I learned about in geology class (because of it's relation to measuring earthquakes, but I was not as interested in that as I thought I might be. Though, I can see other people liking a lot more than I did.

One of the best aspects of this b
May 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really liked this book. GPS is way more than the blue dot on your phone app. Milner takes the reader on a vast journey from the etak navigation methods of the Polynesian sailors to the guidance systems on the Mars lander. What started out simply as an Air Force bomber guidance project has become an indispensable backbone of modern civilization. Milner introduces the reader to vast variety of non-military technologies that rely on GPS including air traffic control, sugar beet farming, plate tec ...more
Dec 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
I can't really give an unbiased review of this one. GPS is my industry, so I thought the topic was incredibly interesting--I honestly don't know whether someone not in my field would like it or not. The history he goes through is so new that some of it has happened even since I've been working in the field, so I remember it. I found myself not so much reading the book as studying it, marking up almost every page with highlighter of things I want to remember. Mr. Milner is coming to speak at a co ...more
Tara Brabazon
Sep 10, 2016 rated it liked it
This is a fascinating book that explores how GPS creates cognitive transformation. Milner probes how GPS is impacting on our culture. The section on "Death by GPS" is powerful. It is well written, as we expect of Milner. But I would have preferred greater attention to literacy and theories of geosociality. It is difficult to 'prove' how GPS change our 'brains.' It is more instructive to probe how GPS changes how we think about bodies, space and movement. That is a different book. But this one of ...more
Rick Elinson
Oct 18, 2016 rated it it was ok
Milner provides some interesting historical information and explanation of GPS, but he tries to do it all with words. This book would have been so much better, both in terms of reading enjoyment and ease of comprehension, if Milner had included 20-30 cartoons or diagrams, illustrating how GPS and other devices for location and timing work.
Oct 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
Highly recommended for anyone interested in navigation. (I'll confess I didn't understand every bit of the science, but I think that's my deficit and not the book's fault).
Nick Galley
Modern-day humanity is spoiled. We need not gaze to the stars in order to navigate the way to another city, and we do not need a sextant to traverse the depths of the seas. GPS has our back -- but we rarely consider what goes into it. "Pinpoint", a nonfiction writing by Greg Milner, tells the untold stories of countless contributors to GPS as they worked throughout the second half of the twentieth century to develop a system that provides glue to the foundation of modern technology and was writt ...more
Sep 04, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A few years ago, I read Greg Milner's "Perfecting Sound Forever." That book, about the history of recorded music, was engaging, funny and often enlightening -- even as it got bogged down in the techno-speak of computer files in its last chapter or so. I was hoping for the same from "Pinpoint."

Well, "Pinpoint" was enlightening in places. But it too often wasn't engaging, and it definitely wasn't funny.

I don't know if I should entirely blame Milner. The subtitle promises much but does
May 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Pinpoint is a combination history and pop scientific look at how GPS was developed, how it's used, and how it's permeated our society in ways unforeseen by its inventors. The ability of Milner to tie all of these points into a one cohesive books is laudable, but the goal sometimes falls short. The 4 stars is mainly a reflection of the strongest chapters of the book.

Milner begins Pinpoint with Part I that is a sketch of the history of military and civilian development of GPS. He begin
I like history and how that history affects us today. This is a book about GPS, where it came from, how it was built and what is doing to us today. While interesting in the stories, the author keeps pounding the same conclusion over and over again.

The first part of the book is filled with the origin stories of GPS. It is the usual tale of really smart people coming up with something radical. Then those with the purse strings are narrow minded and can't see the benefit. The Air Force
May 19, 2017 rated it liked it
I picked up Pinpoint because I have read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and am interested in neuroplasticity (especially how the environment - including technology - affects the physiology of the brain via neuroplasticity) and am an avid consumer of GPS based technology such as Google Maps (I use the Google Maps in my cell phone to get anywherewith which I am unfamiliar). Pinpoint was billed as something similar, but with a focus on GPS and how find our way in the world, so I thought would be an i ...more
Apr 29, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a good, journalistic history of GPS technology, covering how it evolved from its military origins, and uses that have proliferated well beyond navigation, from precision beet farming to the detection of earthquakes; and the privacy and security issues that still need to be addressed.

The weakest part of the book is chapter expressing moral panic about how using GPS might impair people's ability to navigate, resulting in physical changes to our brains. A few horror stories about people fo
Margaret Sankey
Aug 08, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a popular survey of all the things GPS and GIS make possible--municipal websites and their interactive maps of garbage pickup days, marketing via tapestry segmentation, tracking invasive species, self-driving cars and navigation loaded into your cell phone. The most interesting chapters are about the development of GPS as a government-funded military technology for navigation and its demonstrated utility for precision munitions in Kosovo and the Gulf War, and the first chapter, which off ...more
Kevin Whitaker
Aug 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: misc
Three things I learned:
1. In 1980s testing, drivers who used turn-by-turn directions did better than those using maps, routes, or even a combination of modes - because the "spatial" task of looking at a map interferes with driving
2. Physical maps help people build "cognitive maps" in their head - e.g. people know how to navigate best when they're facing north (like the orientation of most maps)
3. The key benefit of the Mercator projection is that latitude and longitude are perpendic
Apr 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I did not expect to be so intellectually stimulated by such a topic. The author successfully explains what turns out to be an amazing subject- where we are.

I'm still amazed not only by the technology, but by the programmers that have found so many ways to use this weak signal from orbiting satellites. Even our probes to Mars use them, besides cell phones, earthquake detection, shifts in global gravity. Just amazing, so much to think about.

My only caveat - I wish I could s
Rachel A
I had no idea GPS was so ubiquitous in society. It's everywhere apparently. This book was a combination of history and technological explanation. It's very technical in some parts and was above my head, but it was interesting to read and a great book for anyone who wants to geek out about satellites, aviation, beet farming, start-ups, truck driving, seismology, plate tectonics, or even privacy law. From its start as an unfavorite military project to its current presence in phones, planes, cars, ...more
Jul 11, 2019 rated it liked it
With part one succinctly covering the apparently quite fascinating history and development of GPS it was hard to see how part two could bring anything more to the table. That is an incorrect assessment. Part two was wonderfully diverse and also super disturbing in how integrated GPS is into daily life without having ever thought about it much. Each section is relatable despite the hugely range of things it covers in conjunction with GPS application. An eye opening wow (in a yikes this could go b ...more
May 26, 2017 rated it liked it
The introduction is the most exciting and intriguing part of the book. I found the first half to be really slow, and then a bit more information that is applicable for socio-cultural coursework towards the end. Honestly, I heard the author speak about the book on a podcast for NPR and his interview and summary were more interesting than the book. It's not a disappointment because I can use the intro with my students.
James Mason
Apr 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was really interesting to learn about how GPS came to be and all the technologies that have become dependent on it. Many of them were very surprising, e.g. land line phones and Martian navigation. I thought the section on old Polynesian navigation was way too long. I get the connection but I came to this book to learn about GPS. Nevertheless, I thought the writing was good - some occasional humor, always clear, and I didn’t notice any technical mistakes.
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Greg Milner is the author of Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His forthcoming book, Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture and Our Minds, will be published by WW Norton in May 2016. Milner is also theco-author, with filmmaker Joe Berlinger, of Metallica: This Monster Lives. A former editor at Spin, his w ...more
“Perhaps the major tenet of Pinpoint is that GPS barely exists—not just because the signal itself is so weak, but also because GPS is a remarkably diffuse concept. At root, GPS is just a radio signal, maintained and perfected by a vast infrastructure that is ultimately linked to the United States Department of Defense.” 0 likes
“We don’t have GPS on Mars,” says Tomas Martin-Mur, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has done navigation work for several Mars missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory, the ambitious mission that brought the rover Curiosity to the red planet in 2012. Nor is there any GPS for the solar system, he adds, which would be a useful way to correct for the effects of solar radiation—just one of the many things that can send a spacecraft off-course. The only GPS we have is on Earth, so we’ve harnessed it for space travel.” 0 likes
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