Retracing my steps

If you have been online in January, you have probably seen a Spotify Wrapped against your will. Candy-coloured and set to a nondescript background beat, the Wrapped roundup satisfies our collective desire for life stats while spawning countless imitations. One of these, as I discovered recently while knee-deep in my inbox, is from the unsettling Google Maps Timeline, which has been faithfully tracing my every move since 2015. As the daughter of an internet security devotee, I was initially horrified to realize that I had failed to safeguard my location data for the better part of a decade. Then, I was fascinated. 

Holed up in my apartment over a grim, drizzly winter, I ached for escapism and found it in hour-by-hour logs of my own pre-pandemic life. Through birdseye maps of my daily travels, I watched high school me move in a circuit between home, school, and the public library—still my sixth most visited place, the timeline tells me. After moving to Montreal for university, I watched myself explore the city before falling into a rhythm. Every mishap is chronicled, from mediocre dates to only lasting an hour into what was meant to be a marathon library session. As my past converged on my present, my map stretched across the ocean as I settled myself in a new city for exchange, and then within months I found myself back in my hometown, motionless. 

Reliving the past, whether by watching yourself grow up via Google Maps surveillance, paging through old diaries, or revisiting text threads, invites both regret and nostalgia. Amid a stagnant year, I yearned for the freedom found in my old maps. Every night spent in a dimly lit crowd and afternoon in a busy coffee shop took on an outsized emotional weight. The places you go, as Google Maps shows in its slick commercials, are of profound importance.

Despite the lessons within, seeing my everyday movements broken down by hours felt like an encroachment by the digital lurker in my pocket. The timeline falls somewhere between the gamified personal data favoured by fans of the quantified self and a startlingly transparent view of what information we as internet citizens willingly exchange for convenient, personalized services. Gen-Z is notoriously lax about online privacy: Among digital natives, it’s taken almost for granted that personal data is being used to inform the algorithms that deliver our content. Tacit acceptance of compromised privacy is often considered necessary to benefit from new technology. 

On the data-driven web, presentations of user data like the timeline obscure the very real security concessions that users make as they traverse the internet. In 2019, I went to a talk by theorist Neema Githere on data healing as a response to data trauma, the compounded weight of being counted and sorted by impersonal yet prying technologies. This concept raises a difficult question: As digital natives who recognize the flaws in our internet immersion, from algorithmic racism to political data mining, how might we break free—especially when there’s a sleekly designed reason to stay?  

New counter-mapping projects like Montreal’s own Queering the Map both disrupt the mapping status quo and satisfy my fascination with narrative location data. The community-generated map invites users to drop pins on their own experiences, capturing the spatiality of 2SLGBTQIA+ life. Inherent in counter-mapping projects is an optimistic view of data as powerfully personal and integral to the stories of our lives, reinforced by the invitation for users to contribute to a collective geography.  

Obeying the luddite voice of reason my mother embedded in my brain, I finally switched off location tracking and put an end to the everchanging map that was six years in the making. My old map remains, though—partially because I cannot figure out how to scrub it from the web and partially because I like to return to it. Perhaps the Google powers that be have me figured out, but the chance to retrace my steps is difficult to pass up.

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