SIGCIS 2010 Workshop Papers

Name:Tristan Thielmann

Institutional Affiliation:University Siegen


Paper Type:Traditional

Paper Title:Car Navigation Systems – A History of Associative Clusters

Paper Abstract:
Little research has been conducted on the history of car navigation systems. Most of the published research in this area is connected to the history of mapping technologies (French 2006), or has focused on small parts of the overall history of mobile computing, e.g., computers for the moon, like the Lunar Roving Vehicle Navigation System or the Apollo Guidance Computer (Mindell 2008). Even historical tracings of computing history that mention basic mechanical navigation devices, like the astrolabe, focus on their sub-function as calculating machines (Williams 1985). Although the history of computing underlies the paradigmatic narrative of a permanent downsizing of chips and other components from mainframe to minicomputers (Ceruzzi 1998), the mobilization of computers itself is not an important issue in the history of information technology.

In order to change that, this paper will present the outcome of several conducted interviews with the major figures in the history of mobile navigation devices who invented, for example, the first automatic route control system for vehicles (Robert French in 1971) and the first commercially available automobile navigation system (Stan Honey in 1985). Against this background, it can be argued that it can be worthwhile to combine a micrological Kittlerian reading of material traces (Kittler 1997) with a Latourian microanalytical reading of mentally constructed traces and mediation steps (Latour 1991) in order to follow all of the alliances, actors, and actans which necessarily accompany socio-technical processes from their invention via innovation through to their diffusion (Gugerli 1995). Thus, the primary task of this paper is to lay bare the many shifts and translations which have led to an associative cluster—in this case, the cluster ‘car navigation system’.

The story of the car navigation system’s invention can be told as follows: Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari, invested in several Silicon Valley start-ups at the beginning of the 1980s. During the TransPacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu in which Bushnell participated, his navigator, Stan Honey, suggested that he might like to invest in car navigation systems based not on the triangulation of television signals, which was considered to be a fairly promising technology at the time, but on premodern canoe navigation. This method of navigation worked without the aid of such media technologies as maps; it functioned purely on the basis of managing to remember various star bearings, whereby the journey is conceived as movement of the surroundings, not as movement of the means of transport. Honey’s idea was to replace the mnemonic capacity of the Polynesian navigators with computer-controlled data storage and a vector display by way of a visualization through Gestalt transition. In Honey’s ETAK Navigator, the user’s position remains static in the center of the display while the map moves underneath, creating the impression that it is not I who am approaching the destination; it is approaching me!

Since the ETAK Navigator, ‘mobile egocentrism’ has become a universal principle for car navigation systems. It was this Gestalt leap, rather than the transition from analog to digital media, which led to a paradigm shift in cartography. Navigation systems have not been successful because they resulted from the development of a particular application against the background of a given infrastructure. Quite the reverse has been the case. The infrastructure appears here to be an extension of the medium. Bruno Latour’s media(tion) theory has, in this regard, the potential to explain the phenomenon of the time-lag between the introduction of a medium and the point at which its visual representation becomes precise.

Ceruzzi, Paul E. (1998): A History of Modern Computing, Cambridge, MA.
French, Robert L. (2006): “Maps on Wheels. The Evolution of Automobile Navigation”, in: Akerman, James R. (Ed.), Cartographies of Travel and Navigation, Chicago, MI, 260-290.
Gugerli, David (1995): “Sociocultural Aspects of Technological Change. The Rise of the Swiss Electricity Supply Economy”, in: Science in Context (8.3), 459-486.
Kittler, Friedrich (1997): Literature, Media, Information Systems, Amsterdam.
Latour, Bruno (1991): “Technology is Society Made Durable”, in: Law, John (Ed.), A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination, London, 103-131.
Mindell, David A. (2008): Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight, Cambridge, MA.
Williams, Michael R. (1985): A History of Computing Technology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.