Geosynchronous Satellites in the Palm of His Hand

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1995

Geosynchronous Satellites in the Palm of His Hand

Governor Moonbeam navigates the political landscape with his GPS gizmo
By Jerry Brown

A goofy presidential campaign full of the usual suspects is coming around again. Media pundits, working for conglomerates masquerading as news outlets, are eagerly replaying their familiar stories of who's ahead and who slept where. The goal is to titillate the distracted electorate, more bemused than ever by its growing sense that elections are more sound and fury than substantive choice.

At our We the People center, an Oakland, California-based organization dedicated to basic social reform, we are forging ahead through the modern wasteland. As we approach the year 2000, little has changed in government except the technologies of control and the levels of campaign spending and public debt. How can we avoid locking up poor people, barriers to education, and future bankruptcy?

Unexpectedly, I receive a new Garmin GPS 40 global positioning system device. Now, I muse, we can reap the spin-off benefits of the military- industrial complex by using its 21 surveillance satellites to keep us on course. If you're conversant in latitudes and longitudes, degrees and minutes and seconds, this amazing hand-held instrument can help you find where you are and where you're going. Knowledgeable in the complexities of programming VCRs, I power up the gizmo. In no time it's sending queries toward the distant satellites, maternally watching us from their geosynchronous orbits.

This isn't my first brush with such a concept. Nearly 20 years ago the firmament of California was likewise filled with satellites and stars--celestial ones and the human ones who write $100,000 campaign-contribution checks. My idea then as governor was for the state to buy its own communications satellite as a way to save millions in commuting costs by allowing telepresence between far-flung offices. But no, the critics scoffed and saw only moonbeams, not elegant efficiencies.

Fast-forward to my 1992 presidential campaign, a populist insurgency with an 800 number and a presence on the as-yet-unheralded Internet. Technology spreading democracy at a grassroots level! Now comes the 1996 presidential race, and it's riddled with World Wide Web envy and gossip flowing between PCs. But what's being delivered? We've created such wondrous devices for bringing us closer--computers, encyclopedias on CD-ROM--but do we take on the wisdom with the power, the beauty with the technology?

The Garmin GPS 40 has now made satellite contact and identified, on its calculator-size screen, my location: 37°47'39" N, 122°16'29" W. While the device might help me on the open seas, through unsurveyed deserts, or in the trees of Yellowstone, it is unfortunately incapable of political direction-finding. Under current circumstances we need a machine that can pinpoint flip-flopping politicians. I imagine myself someday poised on a mountaintop, some future Garmin GPS device clipped to my jeans pocket: I know where I am, and I can deliver voice, video, and data across the globe. At last, all six billion of us are nonwired together in digital embrace. But will we have anything worthwhile to discuss?

Three-time presidential candidate Jerry Brown ([email protected]) wonders whether a new millennium will bring us a new politics.

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