AABP Award 728x90

TRANSITIONS: Please, GPS, don’t hurt us


The Federal Communications Commission decided not to allow a telecommunications company to roll out a 4G phone system, citing the risk of disruption to Global Positioning System (GPS) service. Nice to see precision triumph over chitchat.

After all, unpredictable GPS failures could wreak a fair amount of havoc out here in the fields. Our farmers use this technology for many purposes, and we should support their efforts; somebody has to take care of all this empty space until Google can fill it with server farms.

For one thing, GPS keeps chemical sprayers precisely on course. If you overlap previously sprayed ground by an inch instead of a foot, you save a few thousand dollars – or you get to wear a colorful satin sash at the co-op for a week, your choice.

The next step will be GPS-guided equipment rolling around the countryside without drivers.

It already scares me when I see that sign where the railroad tracks cross Dean Avenue, the one casually mentioning remote-controlled locomotives. Another way to convey this information: “We’ve decided to let hundreds of tons of steel roll through town by itself, because we still haven’t gotten around to watching ‘Unstoppable.’”

When I learned about the 4G threat to GPS, I started picturing a giant spray rig headed in my direction. I’m outdoors enjoying the life of a gentleman farmer, and I can’t run, because I might spill champagne on my smoking jacket. The beast advances quickly through the fence rows, its guidance signal lost and the operator far away at home, distracted by a special episode of “Swamp People.” Eventually, I’m doused with a mixture of nitrogen and Roundup and, although I suddenly have a full head of hair, my fingernails flutter gently to the ground.

Along with our enemies, I have been assured that an excellent way to destroy the United States would be to knock out our communications network. It’s no coincidence that al-Qaeda has amassed thousands of half-off coupons from RadioShack.

But a self-inflicted compromise of our GPS capabilities also is worth worrying about, whether you’re a farmer or not. The ag industry affects us all, and its continued success requires more than pouring wine into Xi Jinping.

I don’t use GPS myself, mainly because I only go places that I’ve gone thousands of times before. (I could have gone a thousand places, one time each, but I couldn’t face small talk with that many airport shuttle drivers.)

Others use GPS a lot. Especially our ambitious, highly educated young people, who can find any file on any hard drive but couldn’t find Chicago on a map of Cook County, Ill. For this generation, a highway map without turn-by-turn instructions is as meaningless as an indie band without T-shirts.

I’ve seen GPS solve problems, but I’ve also seen it make trouble. One time, my brother-in-law wanted to try out a GPS toy as we drove to Cedar Falls. Now, if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s drive to Cedar Falls. When I concentrate, I can hit it a good 75 percent of the time. When I daydream, well, there’s nothing wrong with visiting Dunkerton, either.

GPS immediately started trying to send us on a route that I would categorize as “stupid.” It favored Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 20 over lesser roads, which has a certain cold logic. But that would have kept me from checking out the inventory at the John Deere dealership in Grundy Center. So green. So shiny.

Which brings us, through the miracle of unfocused thinking, back to farmers.

If it comes down to choosing between accurately sprayed fields and the ability to chat on a cellphone while zooming down a highway, it seems like a pretty easy choice.

I’ve eavesdropped on America’s cellphone conversations. I’ll take the weed control.

broadlawns web 110123 300x250