Why Google Remembers Where You’ve Been

mapIn “Brodie’s Report,” a story by Borges, the master of the form, the titular anthropologist is studying a tribe in the wilds of some Pacific Island. He begins to notice something unusual about them; namely, that they can see into the future. Not very far – just glimpses, sometimes with clarity, sometimes all jumbled up. He rations, with a metaphysical bent, that if we can see into the past, and everything that is going to happen is already known by a higher power, then seeing into the future isn’t that remarkable. One can switch the metaphysics with complicated quantum physics if you want, though the author frequently sees little difference. The point is, understanding the future is no different than understanding memory.

It’s a neat story, flanked of course by stories about tigers and labyrinths. It was cool because it also revealed the weird nature of memory. We don’t remember everything or even most things. I can’t tell you where I went three weeks ago Wednesday or April 14th, 2012. That might be changing, though. Our mobile technology and GPS systems have a way of remembering for us, which in some ways changes the nature of the past. It makes it increasingly present. So maybe, if we are talking about mobile tech and time, the story shouldn’t be “Brodie’s Report,” but rather The Time Machine. In some ways, that’s what our technology is: it makes the past always a part of us.

Google’s “Your Timeline” and Finding Your Way

Mountain View’s Google has recently introduced a new feature called “Your Timeline.” This is similar to Facebook’s Timeline, except that it uses GPS, Google Maps, and Your Location to track where you’ve been. Right now, this is just for Android users, like myself. My Galaxy S5 (I know; I’m one behind) comes with Google Maps, of course, and my wife and I rely on it pretty much wherever we go. That’s where Timeline comes in.

This is both neat and helpful (and, in truth, a little creepy). Looking at my Timeline, the first thing I see is home, which is where I am the most often. Every location has the last time you were there, as well as however many times you have been there since you’ve started logging on.

It’s helpful because it allows you to trace patterns, find out what you’ve been doing, possibly fill in journals retroactively, but also because once enough data is collected, Your Timeline can potentially help you make decisions. If your work routes are being tracked, it can use that information to give you commute estimates, alternative suggestions, and route options. It helps make your mobile tech more a part of your existence, and helps it get to know you better. That, for many people, is the promise of mobile tech: to make our lives easier by understanding us.

Now the “neat” factor. It’s insanely addictive. Choose a location that you’ve been to, especially one you’ve been a few times. I chose a pub that my friends and I go to during the Fall Softball League, where I haven’t been in a year, and where we’ll be going once that season starts. I click on it, and it shows October 28th, plus eight more days (it’s a nine-week league). It shows the different routes I took to get there – which train, which stops, etc. Where I walked afterwards. Not only was it fun to look at, but it was helpful, as well. Why did I get off there? I’ll have to remember to avoid that stop.

Even cooler is being able to pick a date at random and seeing where you have been. October 7th, 2014 – oh yeah, camping with friends. April 4th, 2015 – yeesh, I don’t think I even left the apartment. Even days where not much happened – went to get groceries, went to the bookstore, went out to dinner – are suddenly recreated. It’s a neat memory jog.

Bringing Back the Past

That’s exactly what this is: a memory jog. Though it only goes back a few years, my Timeline contains some wonderful memories of trips, outings, softball games, and dinners. It’s a much more physical, world-based way of looking at the past than Facebook. You can match it up with your Pictures, as well, to create a location-based scrapbook, if you want to go all out with it.

For me, that isn’t needed. Just looking at a map recalls walking, the feel of the concrete, the golden autumnal weather, the anticipation of getting to the saloon, opening the doors, seeing my friends, and having a cold one or five before the game (we weren’t that good). There’s something about seeing a route that brings your memories back. Remember that weird gas station we stopped at? Where the guy was whistling? And remember how when we were outside of Happy Valley on the road trip out east, the fog was gloaming its way through the darkening mountains? You can remember that, but actually seeing it is something else.

We live in an age where, as we rush headlong into the future, we’re having to deal more and more with the immutable past. The government can track who you’ve talked to. An ex can post pictures of you online. Something you tweeted can come back years later to haunt you and keep you from getting a job. The past is with us in ways that it never has been before. It isn’t just the stranger with the mysterious secret running away from his past: it’s all of us.

The trick of the information age is to understand how to manage that, and to opt out if you want to. To its credit, Google lets you turn off Your Timeline (though only if you know it exists). But for many of us, it is a joy. It helps us remember what we may have forgotten. It brings tangibility to hazy recollections. It’s a moving picture, in every way, of what we’ve done. Unlike Brodie’s natives, we can’t see into the future. We don’t know where this is going. But who we’ve been has become more clear.

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