Published in Kairos 19.1


Walking with Satellites

A piece of the Space Program in our pockets

The use of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which draws from satellites orbiting the Earth, is an increasingly common part of everyday urban life. In this chapter, we present a selective history of how a piece of the Space Program has ended up in our pockets.

Through our research we have collected historical events and anecdotes that point at different aspects of the multilayered history of satellite navigation. Some of these we present in this chapter. Our aim, as a group of interaction designers, is to understand some of the cultural, political, and scientific contexts that surround the technologies we design with. Here we situate our practice in relationship to a broad sociocultural approach toward technological innovation, which has been discussed in social studies of science and technology (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1993), and increasingly within both design (e.g., Balsamo, 2011) and computer science (e.g., Dourish & Bell, 2011). It also forms the basis of a culturally-sensitive design practice for proposing new ways of understanding and making meaning around GPS technology.

In order to reimagine and recontextualize GPS technology through design, we need to have a thorough critical understanding of its cultural contexts, and how it is constructed and enacted. This connects with a perspective on design that is not just directed towards the creation of new products and solving problems, but also upon an explorative and experimental discipline that is “cognizant of and engaged in our technosocial, technoscientific world” (Ward & Wilkie, 2009, p. 119).

A cultural history of technology gives us an opportunity to build contextual awareness for the project. In this, we take up ongoing discussions of the need for a critical cultural grounding within interaction design that goes beyond the discipline’s typical focus on interfaces and user needs (Balsamo, 2011; Dourish, 2007; Dourish & Bell, 2011; Knutsen, 2014; McCullough, 2013; Murray, 2012).

The events and anecdotes presented in this chapter have been purposefully selected from a wide range of fields and sources, including military archives, popular media, promotional material and personal experiences. This reflects the tangled history of technology, specifically emphasizing the complexities, uncertainties and novelties of working with GPS technology. The rich medley of accounts that we have drawn together reveals the ways in which history and politics are instantiated within a now mundane technology (Winner, 1986).


Of the thousands of operational satellites orbiting our planet, 24 have the job of telling us where we are. Collectively, these satellites make up the Global Positioning System, which is operated by the US Department of Defense and used by billions of people everywhere. With atomic clocks and high frequency radio waves, the GPS satellites render cities into coordinates, and turn us into blue dots that pulsate on our smartphone's pastel maps.

Over the last 50 years, satellites have become a part of daily life in many forms. Today satellites function as transmitters of TV signals, providers of weather forecasts, nodes within communication systems, cornerstones of global transportation, and as the ubiquitous eye-in-the-sky imagery that has become a taken-for-granted part of the Web. However, in the context of interaction design and networked city life, there is something profound about GPS satellites. GPS is not, like many other satellite systems, just an infrastructure or a background phenomena that supports the modern world. These are satellites that we interact with directly in everyday life, through services such as Instagram, Nike+, Foursquare, and Google Maps.

That is, GPS provides real-time location information to the devices in our pockets. Over the last 10 years, GPS has moved from specialized navigation devices to smartphones. This move turned GPS into a standard feature of mobile devices and has made location information available on many social media, fitness, photography, and gaming mobile applications. When we are delicately tapping at our touch screens, there are often satellites at the other end.

4 October 1957: A Man-Made Moon

Man entered the Space Age yesterday when Russia rocketed an earth satellite—a man-made moon—into outer space. It is now circling the world 560 miles up once every 95 minutes.
—Chapman Pincher, Daily Express, October 5, 1957 (as cited in Topham, 2003, p. 12)


Sputnik 1, the first artificial object to ever orbit the earth. Credits: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

On Friday, October 4, 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial object to ever orbit the earth. A shiny aluminium sphere with four spindly antennas protruding backwards, it is a sleek, iconic, and strikingly modern piece of design. The diameter of the sphere was only 57 cm, and it weighed no more than 83 kg.

As it circled the globe, Sputnik’s characteristic antennas broadcast radio signals that were picked up by scientists and radio amateurs around the world (“Soviet Satellite,” 1957). The sound of Sputnik was nothing more than a series of beeps, which LIFE magazine described as “an eerie, intermittent croak . . . like a cricket with a cold” (“Soviet Satellite,” 1957, p. 34). However, no more than two days after its launch, news anchor Douglas Edwards proclaimed that Sputnik's beeps “[were] as much a part of 20th century life as the whirl of your vacuum-cleaner” (CBS News, 1957).

Sputnik was a global media event and had broad geopolitical implications. In a confidential intelligence report from the weeks after the launch, the Eisenhower administration expressed worries about Sputnik’s impact on public opinions across the world. There was a threat, the report stated, that Soviets' temporary lead in missile research could be misunderstood as “myth, legend and enduring superstition” of the scientific and technological superiority of the Soviet system, especially by “unsophisticated audiences” (United States Information Agency, 1957, p. 5).

Myth, legend and enduring superstition

(United States Information Agency, 1957, p. 5)

Because satellites were connected directly to the popular imagination at the time, the White House worried about how Sputnik might impact the general public's understanding of science and technology, and how such shifts might correspond to larger ideological beliefs (United States Information Agency, 1957). In many ways, this impact is also a recurring theme in how GPS has become a part of daily life today.

Sputnik carried many different kinds of meaning: It was a product of the tactical landscape of the Cold War; it represented technological promise and scientific adventure; and, it was an emblem for the popular imagination of the early Space Age. As a layered phenomena invested with multiple interests and powers that have been interpreted through myth, legend, and media, then, Sputnik reflects how satellites have become a part of our cultural history. Sputnik marks the starting point of the location technologies that, today, are taken for granted as a routine aspect of life with smartphones. However, the arch between Sputnik’s shining orb and the pulsating blue dot on an iPhone's map is not a straight and orderly line of technological progress. Instead, it is a fascinating tangle of popular culture, geopolitical drama, consumer electronics, and radio waves.

14 January 1973: Elvis via Satellite

In January 1973, at the peak of his comeback, Elvis Presley played the world’s first live concert transmitted via satellite. The show was called Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite and took place at Honolulu International Center. The concert’s gimmick was that, because Elvis couldn't possibly visit every major city on the planet, a satellite transmitting the live show would beam Presley to everyone who wished to witness him in concert (Guralnick, 1999).

. . . it’s very difficult to comprehend.

—Elvis Presley at a 1972 press conference announcing Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite (as cited in Osborne, 1999, p. 215).

Cover for Elvis Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite

Cover art for Elvis’ Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite

While live satellite broadcast would soon become commonplace, in 1973 it was still a novelty and a key selling point for celebrating Elvis as a truly global performer. Similarly, the sleeve for the first pressing of the concert album portrayed Elvis at a planetary scale, showing Elvis and a satellite against the curve of planet Earth.

22 February 1978: Navstar 1

The Pentagon approved the plans for what would the become the GPS program the same year that Elvis was beamed around the globe (Easton & Frazier, 2013), but the first GPS satellite would not be lifted into space for five more years. Navstar 1 was carried to space by an Atlas F rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in February 1978. It was manufactured by Rockwell Space Systems and had a weight of 450 kg and a span of 5.3 metres including solar panels (National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA], 2013). The first 11 GPS satellites were used for tests and demonstrations, while the first operational GPS satellite, Navstar 2-01, was not launched until 1989.

Navstar was presented in the 1979 Air Force Systems Command's “Staff Film Report 273: Our Role in Space” (Department of Defense, 1979). Here Navstar was portrayed in relationship to Air Force projects for transportation, weather, communication, and space surveillance. Indeed, the focus throughout the film was on the Cold War, and the military possibilities of space exploration, including the use of satellites for “precise weapons delivery in inclement weather” (Department of Defense, 1979).

A selected clip from the 1979 Air Force Systems Command's “Staff Film Report 273: Our Role in Space” (Department of Defense, 1979)

17 July 1995: Fully Operational

On July 17, 1995, the Air Force Space Command’s Public Affairs Office issued a press statement that declared the GPS system fully operational:

This is a major milestone. GPS has become integral to our warfighters and is rapidly becoming a true utility in the civilian community.
—Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Thomas S. Moorman Jr. (as quoted in Air Force, 1995, par. 3)

GPS had already been used extensively by the USA, during the first Gulf War from 1990 to 1991. Even though the full 24 satellite constellation of the system wasn’t in place until 1993, GPS was a central part of Operation Desert Storm. In the featureless Iraqi desert, satellite navigation proved to be invaluable and was put to a number of uses, including reconnaissance, troop movements, surveillance, and guided missiles.

GPS is a model for dual-use systems. It’s both a force multiplier for the warfighter and a boon to the civilian sector.
—Maj. Gen. Robert S. Dickman (as quoted in Air Force, 1995, par. 5)

1 May 2000: Bill Clinton

Throughout the ‘90s, the GPS system behaved differently for civilians and the military. The signals that could be used by civilian receivers were intentionally degraded for national security reasons. This was called selective availability (SA), and it made it impossible for a civilians to get an accurate location below approximately a hundred meters. This limited the civilian uses of GPS throughout the late ‘90s, making it impossible to, for instance, use the GPS for navigating automobiles. On May 1, 2000, President Bill Clinton declared that SA would be removed, making civilian GPS navigation ten times more accurate.

This increase in accuracy will allow new GPS applications to emerge and continue to enhance the lives of people around the world.
—President Bill Clinton (2000, par. 4)

A graph showing the change in accuracy when turning of SA on May 1, 2000.

A graph showing the change in accuracy when turning SA off on May 1, 2000.

In turning off SA, the Clinton Administration made high accuracy GPS available all over the world for free. At the same time, the Department of Defense had also developed a system for selectively denying GPS signals to regions or countries when “national security [was] threatened” (Clinton, 2000, par. 3).

14 December 2003: GPS Art and Geocaching

In the early 2000s, consumer uses of GPS were dominated by hiking and car navigation, the latter an especially popular use among taxidrivers. But, as the technology became more prevalent, a number of playful and experimental uses of the newfound location technology emerged. For example, New York Times reporter Michael Kimmelman (2003) covered how two young British artists, Jeremy Wood and Hugh Pryor, had used GPS to draw and map, as an extension of landscape and land-art:

Traveling by car, plane, foot, boat, train and bicycle, they have drawn an enormous butterfly in Nottingham; a spirograph around Upton; and a few free-form designs, which in one case entailed riding a lawn mower 18 miles back and forth across Oxfordshire Garden. . . . Their basic concept is, in the end, inspired: that the technology of surveillance may produce a poetry of form, and that there is art to the way we move through the world, if we are just alert enough to it.
—Michael Kimmelman (2003, par. 2, 4)

Enabled by growing internet communities and cheap handheld GPS devices, geocaching, a form of recreational treasure hunting emerged at about the same time. As a niche activity, geocachers hide an object, a cache, but share its whereabouts online in the form of GPS coordinates. These playful uses of GPS as a cultural phenomena have become increasingly popular.

15 January 2008: Schoom . . . and There We Are

On January 15, 2008, a little over seven months after the launch of the original iPhone, Apple CEO Steve Jobs went on stage at the Macworld developer conference in San Francisco. Before an audience of developers and journalists, Jobs presented a software update that would bring new features to the iPhone. One of these was a redesigned Maps application.

This button on the left is really cool. I push it . . . and it’s gonna locate [map loads] . . . it’s gonna locate me right on the map. Schoom . . . and there we are. [applause] So, this is pretty cool.
—Steve Jobs (2008)

With the words “Schoom . . . and there we are,” Jobs introduced a new form of interacting with online, mobile maps. But more importantly, the iPhone SDK developer platform Apple released later in 2008 also introduced the CoreLocation API, a toolset for easily building applications and interactions using GPS. Put simply, this allowed for the widespread incorporation of GPS and location awareness in any kind of iPhone Apps. This would soon lead to GPS interactions being much more diverse and ubiquitous than the typical automobile navigation products that dominated earlier in the decade.

Note that the intersection of the iPhone events of 2008, the introduction of GPS, the developer tools and the App store business model marked a significant change in the possibilities for GPS in both design and in everyday life. Something peculiar happened when GPS moved from specialized car-navigation device into networked mobile phones. That is, instead of simply connecting location to road maps, the iPhone connected location to the entire Web, opening up diverse and unforeseen possibilities.

19 January 2009: “Inside the GPS revolution”

The introduction of GPS into the iPhone, followed by others such as Google’s Android system, rapidly brought multiple new uses and perspectives on location. Just six months after the first iPhone with GPS became available, the technology magazine Wired covered this “GPS revolution” and compiled a list of “applications that make the most out of location” (Biba, 2009). Indeed, developers had built apps for avoiding speed cameras, waking travelers up when arriving at the right station while having a nap on a train, playing tag with strangers, calling a cab, and finding bargains. Wired even covered an application for finding, and rating, public restrooms in New York, and an Android app that automatically put phones in watchdog mode when travelers find themselves in bad neighborhoods (Biba, 2009).

In addition to being used for a myriad of specialist purposes, GPS also found its way into popular social media. Geomapped photos on services like Facebook and Flickr quickly became a norm, and demonstrated how location adds to existing services. At the same time, new services like Foursquare, Nike+, and numerous dating sites grew directly out of the possibilities of GPS.

Even with these multiple uses, the recurring theme is navigation and mapping. For a while, Google Maps by default suggested in light grey text in the search field that users search for “Nearest Pizza,” and this trope of finding the nearest anything is still the default way of thinking about location.

3 February 2011: Primetime

You know, you can go out? You never have to get lost again.
—Dr. Owen Hunt, Grey’s Anatomy (Wilding & McKidd, 2011)

By the early 2010s, GPS was frequently featured in cinema and TV series, especially as a plot device in crime shows and police drama. In the seventh season of Showtime’s Dexter, for instance, covert GPS bracelets and GPS trails from smartphones were central to the entire arc of the story (even if its portrayal of GPS accuracy was faulty). But an even more interesting indicator of the way GPS was popularly understood was its appearance in the seventh season of the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.

“Don’t Deceive Me (Please Don’t Go)” aired on February 3, 2011, in the United States and depicted a comedic side-story about social media. Audiences saw the handsome trauma surgeon and Iraq veteran Dr. Owen Hunt using GPS to explain the phenomena of Twitter to the older Chief Webber:

Webber: Dammit!

Hunt: Can I help you with something there Chief?

Webber: I’m trying to look at Bailey’s teats on the internet.

Hunt: I think you mean tweets Sir.

Webber: Whatever.

Hunt: No no. Not whatever. It’s important that you get that one right. Let me try. . .

Webber: Bailey is putting her surgeries on the internet for the whole world to see.

Hunt: Ahmn

Webber: I’ve told her I'll look into it, but I think it is a terrible idea.

Hunt: I don’t know, might be a good way to reach students.

Webber: Yeah, might be Bailey bragging to the world about Bailey. This thing isn’t designed for medicine, it’s designed to gossip.

Hunt: [...] - and now it’s in everyone’s car. You know, you can go out, you never have to get lost again.

Webber: I don't go out.

Hunt: [inbreath] Let’s save that conversation for next time. Here you go: Bailey’s Twitter page. Looks like she’s tweeting a surgery right now.

Webber: What!

(Wilding & McKidd, 2011)

Here GPS was not used as a plot device, as would be typical in a crime show, but rather as an explanation. Instead of using GPS as a novel or exciting technology for scriptwriters to create surprising, invisible leads for their detectives, this episode of Grey's Anatomy framed GPS as an everyday technology for explaining the novelty of social media. Fittingly, the episode culminated with Twitter saving a patient’s life.

20 September 2011: Night Runner

We want to close this history of GPS with a personal anecdote about GPS, smartphones, and design. In late September 2011, at a cafe in Oslo, we discussed our ongoing explorations of GPS with technologist and designer/artist James Bridle. He told us about an odd thing he had observed about location services on his iPhone. Namely, that if you leave a running app such as Nike+ or Runkeeper on your bedside table while you sleep at night, you will wake up to see that the app reports that you ran a significant distance, without doing anything. This, we speculated, is due to the way in which these apps are recording the GPS inaccuracies and counting these as actual, physical movements. In reality, these odd asymmetrical star-shaped tracks offer a map of the shifts of the phone attempting to locate itself.

A screenshot of the Nike+ App after the smartphone had been lying on a kitchen table over night.

A screenshot of the Nike+ App after the smartphone has been lying on a kitchen table over night.

For a user, glitches like this might seem insignificant. Yet, this odd and intriguing observation hints at a gap between how GPS is described technically, and how it actually works in everyday life. There are errors and uncertainty in the system, especially when it is indoors or in built up urban areas. Interaction design with GPS is therefore not as straightforward as Apple’s location API makes it seem. There is more to this technology than pastel maps and blue dots. The wider possibilities and challenges with GPS remain unknown, both for designers and users.

Made Invisible by Its Own Success

The trajectory from Sputnik to smartphone is not a clean linear path of technological progress. As the anecdotes and events selected in this chapter show, the history of GPS stretches from the Space Program to taxis, battlefields to Google Maps, guided missiles to urban navigation. By looking back at this tangled history, we see that we cannot separate the technology from politics, military, and popular imagination. In many ways, GPS is technologically incomprehensible and often mythologized. Its meanings are contested; yet, it is almost completely unavoidable.

Alongside the internet, the GPS system is perhaps one of our most ambitious contemporary technological projects. First, it is almost completely ubiquitous, as it covers most of the outdoor world, including places where there is no electricity, internet or mobile phone coverage. Second, it has billions of users and uses across many professional fields, including agriculture, defense, transportation, architecture and finance who use the technology for a wide array of purposes such as finding public toilets, setting alarms, landing planes, navigating drones, building roads and timing stock markets. Third, it has become an everyday technology, where its “technical work is made invisible by its own success” (Latour, 1999, p. 304).

In everyday urban life, GPS is characterised by invisibility and abstraction. The technological phenomena itself, radio waves from satellites, is inherently invisible, and the only way we interact with it is through abstractions in interfaces (e.g., online maps). At the same time, GPS is becoming increasingly commonplace and culturally invisible. Its conventions are solidified, and expectations are stabilized. As it becomes ordinary, it fades from view, and this revolutionary invention is absorbed into “the landscape of the mundane” (Highmore, 2002, p. 2).

In the following chapters, we therefore reflect on, and engage with, the contemporary cultural and material conditions of GPS as it takes place in everyday urban life. Interaction designers play an important role in how technologies are used and experienced, but in this project we turn our tools and knowledge toward investigating and revealing how technologies are shaped around and through uses. In other words, we explore how the disciplinary knowledge associated with interaction design might be leveraged to construct new ways of understanding and imagining the technological conditions of everyday life.


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