Wayfinding before GPS

One can hardy deny the utility of GPS–and similar other geospatial tools–in modern society. They have certainly augmented human capability to navigate the earth’s surface. But interesting questions are: how were humans navigating before GPS came to existence? What tools were used then? And  how have these tools evolved over the time?

Knowledge about where things are and how to reach there has remained major challenge to humans since the time of hunter-gatherers. These early humans needed to explore distant locations to find and bring foods back to the shelter. In doing so, there is no doubt that they depended in their five senses for navigation: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. They gradually began to use the sun, moon, stars, and planets as a broad framework for navigating and making sense of the space. I remember that when I was small, position of the sun and the intensity of its light were used to decide when to stop the day work and begin the evening works.  Thus, we do not need to go too far back in the history to see the use of sun, moon and stars for navigation. Surprisingly, humans had been able to maintain the social order with these low precision mechanisms; one can easily guess their precision by today’s standard.

Landmarks and seamarks have been extensively used since the early period of human civilization. However, several of their limitations made them insufficient for effective navigation. Hence, the pursuit for new inventions followed as finding direction, computing distance and locating position continued to remain a challenge to humans. With the invention of printing press, paper maps became widely available. Now, with computers and the Internet, digital maps have become almost essential commodity. Geospatial search engines such as Mapquest, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft Virtual Earth receive millions of hits every day.

Perter Morville, in his book ‘Ambient Findability’, beautifully traces the vitality of geospatial information and the evolution of innovation to create and share human knowledge about space. His discussion about how ants travel distance thousands times longer than their body length and still manage to return to their home is thought provoking. There is much that human shares with other living beings in terms of the way they navigate space. Unfortunately, modern day technologies help us only a little to understand and learn from our past as well as from other living beings; it looks to me that we are more and more becoming superficial users of technology!


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