The GPS Cognitive Ecosystem

Scott Schroeder

The GPS is a tool which has evolved tremendously over the past couple decades, making modern GPS’s user-friendly and easily utilized by travelers every day. The GPS is far more than a simple, stand-alone electronic device. It is a cognitive ecosystem in a trajectory-based family of extended cognition. The GPS communicates interactively with the human operator, providing linguistic and semiotic instruction, and accepting data through numeric and symbolic input. The cognitive interaction between the operator and the GPS provides the operator greater comprehensive awareness of the environment, provides the vehicle’s exact physical position in real-time in relation to landmarks, and enables the operator to operate the vehicle with less stress and less distraction when navigating through unfamiliar territory.

Several models of GPS exist on the commercial market for a variety of purposes. This article will focus solely on the standard GPS’s used for vehicle navigation, such as the TomTom or devices installed in contemporary vehicles by the manufacturers. Before delving into the cognitive interactions involved between a GPS and an operator, a brief description of what a GPS is and how it operates will be summarized.

The GPS, or Global Positioning System, is comprised of a GPS receiver, which is the device commonly referred to as the GPS which interfaces with the operator, and a constellation of 27 Earth-orbiting satellites. Though it is now sold commercially, the system was developed and implemented by the U.S. military for military and navigational purposes. The GPS receiver locates four or more of these satellites, determines the distance to each, and calculates the precise location of the receiver.

The GPS cognitive ecosystem encompasses the collaboration between the modular components of the human operator, the GPS receiver, and the Earth Orbiting satellites. The satellites emit signals captured by the GPS receiver. The GPS receiver then interprets those signals, manipulates the data, and computes the global position of the GPS receiver using formulas programmed by human engineers. The GPS receiver also stores in memory detailed, digital maps of roadways and landmarks. The receiver runs an algorithmic program which calculates the vehicle’s real-time global location in relation to the roadways and landmarks.

In describing the theory of “the extended mind,” Andy Clark and David Chalmers contended “the human organism is linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction, creating a coupled system that can be seen as a cognitive in its own right” (Hutchins, 3). The two-way interaction Clark and Chalmers describe is consistent with the communication between the GPS receiver and the human operator. The GPS receiver converts the binary machine code, or machine language, into a meaning system of human language and symbols which is understood by the human operator. Conversely, the human operator is able to program data into the GPS using those same symbols, which the receiver converts to machine language, enabling the GPS to compute the data.

As previously stated, in addition to spoken language, the GPS receiver communicates to the operator through semiotics. The GPS utilizes the three categories of referential associations, icon, index, and symbol, as described by Charles Sanders Peirce (Deacon, 70). The GPS receiver digital display, the primary cognitive interface between the receiver and the operator, utilizes icons to mediate physical or temporal connections between sign and object, such as a fork and spoon icon to represent a restaurant, a gas pump icon to represent a gas station, or a Red Cross or Red Crescent to represent a hospital; indexical representations to indicate battery strength, satellite coverage, or measurement of trip completion; and symbols to represent the vehicle on the display, and roadway the vehicle is on, and turns, bridges, exits, and adjacent roadways.

As the warning label on the vehicle GPS reads, vehicle operators must keep their eyes on the road and not become fixated on the GPS receiver digital display for safety concerns. This is why the GPS communicates to the operator through spoken language. However, even if the operator cannot hear or if the language being ‘spoken’ by the receiver is foreign to the operator, the semiotic communication of the GPS receiver is so powerful that the spoken language is insignificant.

The GPS’s vivid semiotic representations combined with human memory and cognition allows the operator to associate and visualize the route through an array of spatial landmarks, from which the operator imposes a trajector on that array of landmarks. Put more simply, the visual representation on the GPS digital display enables the operator to formulate a mental map enabling him or her to visualize the route far beyond what he or she can see, internalizing the array of operating instructions to the mile and/or time. The operator also conducts his or her own computational processing independent of the GPS receiver, calculating approximate adjusted arrival time taking into account traffic, road conditions, and scheduled stops.

The Global Positioning System is an interdependent system which relies on satellites to signal to a GPS receiver its global position, a human operator to program a destination into the GPS receiver, and the GPS receiver to maintain real-time physical position in relation to mapped roadways and provide navigational instructions to the operator to reach the programmed destination. The GPS’s use of language and the three referential associations of semiotics, all utilized in unison, provides a cognitive picture of the current state as well as the sequence of instructions, which the operator projects on the physical environment. This is what makes the GPS a cognitive ecosystem.