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Pinpoint by Greg Milner review – how is GPS changing our world?

Anyone with a smartphone anywhere on Earth knows exactly where they are. But does that leave us lost?

In early 2008, for quixotic reasons that needn’t detain us here, I decided to walk from Dubai airport across the city and into the Empty Quarter of Arabia. Prior to departure, at home in London, I tried to figure out a way of reaching, on foot, the desert resort of Bab al Shams, which lay about 15 miles beyond the city’s ragged fringe of buy-to-let building sites. There were some tourist maps that showed the downtown area and a few primary arterial routes, but there was nothing available that had both the necessary scale for a walker – 1:25,000 or better – and sufficiently accurate orientation to enable compass bearings. While the local Bedouin may to this day retain a mental map of the area, collating a myriad of little positional markers – environmental, solar and sidereal – in order to determine location and direction, everyone else presumably relied on the GPS navigation systems in their air-conditioned cars.

In the end I hit on the simple if deranging idea of laying a 12in ruler against a Google Earth satellite photograph of the desert on my computer screen. This did indeed give me a means of dead-reckoning, but I had no way of determining distance accurately, and when I left the last pile of dusty breezeblocks behind and headed into the dunes, following the flickering needle of my compass, it was with the understanding I might well be spending the night beneath the stars. In fact, the bearing proved sound enough, and I arrived at the resort hotel well after dark to be informed by the receptionist (who was from Selly Oak) that there’d be no alcohol served that night because it was the Prophet’s birthday.

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