Market Solutions Versus State Solutions: Global Positioning System

Continuing on my theme of comparing market solutions to state solutions, today I’m going to discuss the Global Positioning System (GPS). For those of you unfamiliar with GPS it’s a network of satellites that provides positional information for navigation purposes. Development started in 1973 by the Department of Defense (DoD) and it became fully operational in 1995. Today anybody who uses a computer navigation system, say their phone or a dedicated GPS receiver, relies on this network.

There are several points to note about GPS. It was originally developed to improve the DoD’s ability to blow up people in foreign countries. Civilians were begrudgingly given access to the network but only through a degraded signal. In 2000 civilians were finally allowed to access a non-degraded GPS signal and that’s when the real innovation began.

The DoD’s exclusive access to the full capabilities of GPS resulted in no notable quality of life improvements for everyday people. Instead the DoD saw GPS as a way of improving its ability to kill people. Even today the state still uses GPS to enhance its own power. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), for example, uses GPS to perform warrantless surveillance.

Meanwhile the market has been utilizing GPS to improve the lives of everyday people. In 1991 a GPS receiver weighing less than 3 pounds was finally created. Today GPS receivers are so small that they fit in our phones. Using these miniaturized GPS receivers we are able to navigate with our phones. Google and (to a much lesser extent) Apple’s mapping services give consumers free access to constantly updated maps that enable real-time turn-by-turn navigation when coupled with a GPS signal. Market access to GPS gave rise to Geocaching, a game where players use GPS to locate hidden caches. Task management apps allow users to create reminders that will fire off when they enter their home or place of work. Bicycling apps allow cyclists to keep track of where they road, how fast they were going, and how high the hills the ascended were. Phones and other devices can utilize GPS to report their location so they can be easily recovered if stolen. Thanks to the market you can even use GPS to defend yourself against the state. Apps such as Waze will alert you to reported police presence before you’re close enough to be clocked on a radar gun.

Where the state saw a network of navigational satellites only as a means of improving its ability to kill and spy the market saw it as a means of improving our lives in a vast number of ways. Thanks to the market GPS is so integrated into our daily lives that we take it for granted.