Is GPS destroying ancient skills?

John Edward Huth examines how modern technology has affected mankind's ability to navigate. Bill Condie reviews.

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way
John Edward Huth, Belknap, Harvard University Press RRP $45.00

Is GPS making us lazy and destroying vital skills that have taken mankind millennia to perfect?

Harvard physicist John Huth fears it may be. In this wonderful, sprawling, slightly eccentric book, he bemoans the fact that most people now are, quite literally, lost without their smartphones or GPS devices. By contrast our distant ancestors “travelled vast distances using what seem to us like primitive technologies”.

Huth was horrified by the deaths of two teenage kayakers lost in fog off the coast of Maine on a day he was navigating the same conditions. Where Huth could read the waves and steer for shore, the two young women could not and paddled out to sea.

This sets Huth on a comprehensive review of the development of navigation from the most ancient tribes, South Pacific islanders who could cover immense distances to locate a tiny speck in the ocean, the Vikings’ epic transatlantic voyages, through the development of European celestial techniques and more reliable charts.

The book is generously illustrated, with maps, star charts and representations of how the Earth orients to the Sun and stars on nearly every page. Huth’s amiable and knowledgable tone keeps the narrative moving forward and accessible through what are sometimes complex waters. Clearly Harvard’s physics department’s gain is geography’s loss.

If Huth’s fears are founded and we are losing the skills that have been of such use to us, then this book – practical manual as much as lyrically written hymn to the ingenuity of humans – is an excellent starting point in regaining the wisdom of our forefathers.

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