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Apocalypse 911

October 1, 2001  - By
Image: GPS World

By Glen Gibbons

“Limited only by our imaginations.”

People like to say that about uses of GPS, or what some-one would do if they won the lottery, or a child’s options when released from school into an endless summer.

But sometimes it’s good for our imagination to have limits. Some things our hearts and minds are better off not being able to visualize.

Consider our recent horrors. Nazi death camps. Hiroshima. Cambodia’s killing fields. Genocidal Tutsis and Hutus. And now the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The Pentagon in flames, for crying out loud!

One moment, an idea was unimaginable; the next, it’s historical fact — indelible, inescapable, unforgettable. The world has changed, and we along with it. The new millennium has cut its teeth on the edge of a sword.

Probably John of Patmos would have preferred not to have had his imagination stoked by revelation 2,000 years ago. Yet there it was: the fourth seal, a pale horse and rider, his companions loose in the world, wielding death by sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. Four horsemen, but riding under a single banner of terror.

Many must feel the apocalypse is bearing down on us now, like the planes bearing down on those three buildings in New York and Washington. Even the date has an ominous numerological coincidence: September 11, 9-11, the same numbers that were punched frantically into cell phones as events rushed toward their horrible destiny.

So, we find ourselves as though on the edge of a precipice, crevasses opening ahead of and behind us: irrevocably separated from what now seems a sweetly peaceful past, the way forward blocked by an abyss of certain dangers and uncertain risks.

The already stuttering economy has mimicked those tumbling structures in New York and Washington, although the collapse has been nowhere near as devastating or profound. We have gone down into a valley – emotionally, economically – and it may be a long way till we climb back out.

In this long journey back to the light, however, I expect that we will find GPS has become more a part of the recovery than a victim of the decline. Why? Because it is such a fine tool.

In the present circumstances, of course, the first uses of GPS that come to mind are the military ones. The guided missiles, the handheld and vehicle-mounted navigators, GPS/wireless locators for downed pilots, precision munitions like those discussed in an article elsewhere in this issue. Yet even as an aroused world tries to extricate the sources and agents of terror from a global body politic, we will find broader uses for GPS.

The Volpe Transportation Systems Center report on the vulnerability of transportation infrastructures relying on GPS, released the day before the terrorist attacks, will evoke even stronger resonance now. Security has become the watchword not merely for a day, but for the foreseeable future.

Consequently, we’ll see a lot more GPS surveying, mapping, and machine control systems at work in securing physical assets. We’ll see increased efforts to ensure the use of GPS timing that underlies the world’s synchronized telecommunications infrastructure, the Internet, power systems, local and wide area computing networks. We may even see some innovations in emergency automatic landing of aircraft seized by hijackers, as discussed in an essay in this issue.

But I suspect that the biggest incentive that these tragic events will provoke in GPS applications will be in its use in tracking people and assets. Figuratively reaching out and touching someone, as the well-known wireless marketing slogan puts it, is no longer enough. To more completely assuage the anxious undercurrents that these events have set in motion, we’ll need to be able to reach out and locate someone, or let someone know our own location. So, too, our public modes of transportation, our material goods in transit, will demand even greater real-time knowledge of their location and status.

Yes, a chasm has opened before us. And yet, to come safely across to the other side, it doesn’t matter how deep the abyss is, but rather how wide. Our actions in the months and years ahead can widen or narrow the gap separating the world from a better future. In that regard, we should consider the words of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “He who fights with monsters might take care so that he doesn’t thereby become a monster. If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

The United States has been grievously injured, innocent people wrongfully killed. Yet every nation has some cause to cry out for justice; every human being has a right to be delivered. To navigate this perilous terrain, will require better guidance than even that available from GPS.

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