I can think of three important questions here. First, when our location is shared, who is it being shared with? I find it fascinating how different the stakes seem when our location is shared with corporations compared with our government. Most people—including myself—are generally far more comfortable sharing their location with tech giants, car-insurance companies, or even their employers than with the police, the Department of Homeland Security, or the U.S. Census Bureau. On its face this makes sense, since we have an immediate sense of how apps make our lives better, while government tracking conjures dystopian visions of mass state surveillance. But in practice, the government is usually far more constrained—by statute, courts, the Fourth Amendment—than corporations are, and these constraints are the product of representative decision-making that is totally lacking from corporate strategy. Now this doesn’t mean that we should necessarily share our location more freely with the government (I don’t think we should), or even that we should share less freely with corporations (although we might). Rather, I think sharable location data has highlighted—or even magnified—differences in how we trust and defer to corporate versus state institutions. Location data has a tendency to move the balance of infrastructural power away from government and toward business.
The second question is similar. When our location is shared, who decides to share it? Overwhelmingly these decisions are made by individual users—and almost always, individual users decide that the risks that come with sharing are outweighed by the benefits. But can you imagine the police, for example, asking individuals on a one-by-one basis whether they consent to being tracked? It seems obvious that law-enforcement tracking should be subject to collective decision-making—representative legislatures, the courts, etc.—and that there are broader social costs and benefits that exceed any given individual’s self-interest or even awareness. One of the main ways that location data is transforming the balance between state and non-state power is altering the balance between collective and individual decision-making. And here I feel more comfortable saying that this is a problem. I think that more of our location-data decisions should be made collectively—not just because individuals may understand immediate benefits better than they do long-term risks, but because at a certain level of aggregation, location data is not just about individuals. It becomes a collective object.
Finally, I think there’s a broader question here about identity. When our location becomes a form of data—literally a series of numbers stored on our devices—it becomes reified, even commodified. Our being-in-space becomes something we produce rather than something we are. And I think there’s something profound about considering our location—or more broadly our patterns of existence in space and time—as an essential part of our subjectivity. What would it mean to think of spatiality as one of the categories of intersectional identity? We know how our subjectivity is constituted through certain categories of the body, including gender, race, age, sexuality, (dis)ability, and language, but spatiality is no less bodily and no less socially constructed or socially meaningful. So there’s a double movement here. At the same time that our GPS traces might make us more aware of the ways we occupy space—the spaces that are open or closed to us, the patterns that define our daily lives—it might also make it easier for us to regard spatiality as something technological, as something that is created and exists on a device rather than as an inalienable part of who we are in the world.
Associate Professor of the History of Science, Yale UniversityView Bio
Dr. William Rankin is Associate Professor of the History of Science at Yale University, and he is the author of After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century. In addition to his historical research, he is an award-winning cartographer. In this interview, Bill explains how location data can be thought of as part of our individual identities, even when it is anonymous.