Inuit Wayfinding and GPS Technologies

Recent Readings

Nunavut landscape
Nunavut landscape. Sam Fakhreddine (c) 2005

An article in the December 2005 issue of Current Anthropology by Claudio Aporta and Eric Higgs called "Satellite Culture: Global Positioning Systems, Inuit Wayfinding, and the need for a new account of technology" discusses what happens when traditional methods of maintaining geographic knowledge become affected by the adoption of new technologies.

Alfred North Whitehead in Introduction to Mathematics (1911) said "Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them".

Authors Aporta and Higgs argue that we ought to think about the repercussions of the use of technology in certain circumstances -- maybe in most circumstances. What social and cultural losses are incurred, they ask, when traditional methods of lifeways are altered by the use of modern technologies?

GPS and Wayfinding

GPS (or Global Positioning System) technology is relatively new; and before recent refinements was little used by most people in the world. Today, GPS receivers are capable of real-time accuracy within centimeters in three dimensions; GPS receivers are so common in the west today they are found as equipment in new automobiles and used in GPS orienteering games, called geocaching.

Alternatively, wayfinding is a mode of travel made possible by the intimate social and cultural knowledge about the geography of a region. Traditional Inuit wayfinding includes knowledge of a network of place names, wind behavior, snowdrift patterns, animal behavior, tidal cycles, ocean currents and astronomical phenomena.

This knowledge is not written down, but rather transferred from generation to generation by experience, during hunting expeditions or training sessions. GPS equipment has been recently adopted by some people in varying degrees of intensity in some Inuit communities. Of course, GPS is not the only addition to the technology of the Inuit: the Inuit live in the 21st century, with formal education, electronic communications, and wage labor; not to mention rifles and snowmobiles.

Marking Waypoints

Different Inuits use GPS in a variety of ways, but some hunters who have adopted GPS use it to mark 'waypoints'--reference points rather than recording complete trails, enhancing traditional wayfinding techniques by pinpointing targets rather than replacing wayfinding entirely. In traditional wayfinding, identifying a precise location -- say a cabin site -- under blizzard conditions or in a fog might require a methodical search. GPS-assisted wayfinding can find those specific targets under terrible conditions more quickly. However, Inuit elders point out that relying on battery-operated technology in cold conditions is a very risky business; and losing the ability to find your way without it rashly hazardous.

Borgmann and Technology

The authors use philosopher Albert Borgmann's so-called 'device paradigm' to express concern that adopting GPS technology may be part of a trend that involves a loss of engagement with the environment. Using GPS technology, the authors believe, risks turning the landscape into a constructed environment, and reduces intimate experiences of land, people, and local knowledge. In this respect, say Aporta and Higgs, the Inuit are but one example of how we all suffer when we adopt technologies without considering the cost.

Several signed comments are included with this article, from geographers, anthropologists, and psychologists, with a response by Aporta and Higgs.

Applications to the Rest of Us

What interests me about this article is its applicability to all of us. For example, when I conduct an interview these days, I by and large use email. I don’t know what my interviewee looks like, I can’t tell if her office is messy or neat, what his voice sounds like or if she smells of caffeine, cigarettes or cinnamon. What I’ve gained by using the technology in speed, efficiency and accuracy is matched by the loss of human context. The loss is worth contemplating, even if there doesn’t seem to be a lot we can do about it.

Source Material

Unfortunately, Current Anthropology has yet to establish single-copy downloads. However, a single issue (volume 46, issue 5) or annual subscription may be purchased at the University Press of Chicago website.

One book of interest concerning application of Borgman's theories is Eric Higgs, Andrew Light and David Strong. 2000. Technology and the Good Life?. University of Chicago Press.

Thanks to author Claudio Aporta for his suggestions. Any errors are mine.