One of the signal books of the 1970s urged readers to “Be Here Now” — to be ever-present, according to the consciousness-raising ideals of the time.
If “You Are Here” is indicative of how we’ve arrived at the current era — technologically tethered as we’ve become — this new historical survey by veteran Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray makes a sobering case for our own complicity in creating a society where technology offers great benefits and conveniences but threatens individual privacy and independence.
“For much of human history,” he writes, “it has been relatively easy to get lost.” Ages ago, that was a terrifying prospect, but now it almost sounds like a welcome invitation. Bray’s book describes the march of progress in mapping our own surroundings and how our search for ever-better surveillance has sometimes made us lose our way as we try to “find ourselves.”
In deft detail, “You Are Here” chronicles the various innovations that have helped human beings guide themselves across the planet, from the primitive navigational tools of Polynesian sailors to the gyroscopes and GPS devices with which we’ve conquered the sea and air. In the smartphone age, however, we’ve made ourselves, not the rivers and mountains, “the primary geographic feature” of the landscape as we identify “the exact locations of billions of humans, their every move recorded and viewed by far too many eyes.”
As Bray’s history unfolds, the cumulative effect will make the reader despair over the source of so many of our technological advances. From the aviation breakthroughs of World War I and the brutal bombing campaigns of World War II to the space race of the Cold War, it becomes amply clear that we might not have developed a fraction of our present pocket wizardry if it weren’t for the unfortunate urgency of war.
By design, the book summarizes one scientific development after another, and the relentless roll call can sometimes glaze the eyes. Guglielmo Marconi, MIT engineer Ivan Getting, U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, and many more historical figures make cameo appearances and are ushered offstage shortly after they’re introduced.
For the lesser technophiles among us, Bray’s descriptions of complicated projects, such as the microwave-generating cavity magnetron (used in advanced World War II radars and later microwave ovens) or the origins of the Global Positioning System, are admirably lucid. Noting how Google faced “the biggest scandal in the company’s history” over its data mining in pursuit of a more accurate navigational system, the author contrasts those efforts with the approach of Boston-based Skyhook Wireless, which helped usher in the era of cellphone location services without compromising user data. The company’s hybrid network, he explains, simply “used a call-and-response method reminiscent of a lively Baptist church service, where the pastor shouts ‘Hallelujah!’ and the congregation chants ‘Amen!’ ”
In the opening chapters, the narrative leaps from medieval maps to radio frequencies. The second half of the book slows down considerably to examine the microchips of the current era, when Mapquest and Geostar and Foursquare have put the world quite literally in the palms of our hands.
Such unprecedented convenience, Bray writes, has come at a heavy price. Launching any new app on your phone, you’re likely to be asked for permission “to use your current location.”
“In a banal, nonthreatening way, you have been asked to reveal where you are, not only at that moment but throughout your day — and likely the rest of your life.” It is, he notes, an “unsettling request.” Besides providing an instructive history lesson, “You Are Here” should make readers stop and think a little deeper about where we’re at.James Sullivan, author of four books, can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail
.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivan