SFB 1187 ›Medien der Kooperation‹ an der Universität Siegen
Guest Lecture – Dr. Paul Ceruzzi: “Much to Everyone’s Surprise’: Military and Civil Uses of the Global Positioning System”
Thursday, 12 January 2017, 18:00-19:30 Organized dem Teilprojekt A01
For centuries, governments have invested resources in the art and science of navigation. These efforts both enhanced military power and facilitated world trade. Lighthouses, nautical charts, astronomical tables, radio beacons—these were available to civilians as well as navies and air forces. The Global Positioning System (GPS), conceived in the 1970s, followed that pattern. Designed for the U.S military, it also broadcast a less-accurate signal for civilian and commercial use. In practice, the degraded civil code was found to be much more accurate than planned. Using the language of the Social Construction of Technology, the result was the opening of the “black box” that the U.S. Air Force placed GPS into. The U.S. now maintains and supports, at high cost, something that is used worldwide for a host of users, at no cost. The story of GPS’s origins has been told, but what remains unexplained is how a system of satellites, conceived by the military for military and commercial use, became not only a central resource for the U.S. military, but also a vital component in global shipping, air traffic, manufacturing, finance, and trade. It has also become part of ordinary citizen’s lives, as GPS mapping is now standard equipment in most new automobiles, and as geolocation services are among the many applications available on smartphones. Its place as a critical piece of global infrastructure also explains in part why the European Union, Russia, and China either have or are now developing similar systems, even if GPS signals are available free of charge worldwide.

One answer to that question is that GPS has been commingled with two other technological developments, which also had their roots in the 1970s. One was the Internet, conceived as a military communications system by the U.S. Defense Department in the mid-1960s, and developed rapidly in the 1970s. The other was the microprocessor, also invented in the 1970s. The combination of these, combined with other satellite and aerospace innovations, generated a tidal wave of social, economic, and military changes to the fabric of industrial society.


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