Google couldn’t get any location data for my trip to ohiopyle, PA to swim in this river, because i had no cell reception. but it kind of tracked me driving down the mountain in my mud-stained exhilaration. / photo by author

The Evidence of Your Memory

In the throes of Google’s sexy, emotional location data

Zoë Hayden
5 min readSep 28, 2013


We do, of course, all know by now that if we have Google Location Services enabled on our devices, that Google can track our physical locations, because we never leave home these days without our phones.

If you have a Google account and you have enabled location services on your devices and left it on for awhile, you should see a relatively reliable account of your recent movements about the Universe here. In my case, it generally tracks my movements around Boston, Massachusetts, where I live, and it has also joined me on several trips throughout the United States, during a particularly tumultuous and (I hope) transformative phase of my life. The accuracy is not what is mind-blowing (on one occasion, the data ends my journey for the day in the middle of the Charles River, a place I can assure you I’ve never been). Nor should the data itself be shocking. We all know that Google collects this data. The whole concept of “YOU are the product” should be fairly self-evident to any Internet user who is remotely awake.

No, what is striking is the way the data is curated for the end user’s benefit, the fact that it all corresponds to real-world movements, some of which are likely to be profoundly affecting. I hate to naively wonder whether Google developers considered that when creating the dashboard area.

Google reminds me of how much time I spend at home, and how I wish it were less.

If you have set your “home” and “work” addresses with Google, you can get this pie chart about how much time you spend at each, and how much time you spend “out.” I need to get out more, actually, especially because my work time is likely skewed downward since I have a job that requires me to leave my office location frequently.

Maybe I didn’t land in Pittsburgh. Maybe I teleported there.

It can tell when I’ve been on planes—sort of. Note how it didn’t catch me landing in Pittsburgh on July 20.

Too much booze in data form.

So, this is an interesting day for me.

I started the day hung over on the couch at my dad’s with my best friend on the opposite couch after a pretty rowdy evening with a huge cheap bottle of Canadian whisky and the Zac Efron movie Charlie St. Cloud (which I would tell you about, but I would probably need another essay to drunkenly discuss this Nicholas Sparks masterpiece of plotting, where boats rule the Earth and a teen fights with his dead brother over a dirty magazine). This was a seminal visit home for me at the end of July, having not been back to Pennsylvania or seen my family since the previous Thanksgiving. Boston had soured for me, personally and professionally, and I was desperate to get back to the mountainous rust belt and small town living. Getting really drunk at my dad’s log cabin with my best friend of 12 years was the denouement of the trip: I was still young and stupid and could drink like a fish when the occasion called for it, but I was doing all of this on earned vacation time and had to go back to work the next day. What a disappointment.

After the initial stages of the hangover, we went to the grocery store and spent $70 on a picnic lunch of various cheeses, fruits, tiny breads, meats, and juices. I vomited fantastically in the bathroom of the Giant Eagle. We ate the picnic lunch on her boyfriend’s lawn.

I then went home to my father’s house, frantically packed, changed clothes, and traveled to the airport with my family. The trip to Boston felt sudden and traumatic. I wasn’t ready to leave yet. Stepping off the plane at Logan punched me in the guts. After initially dropping my things off at my own apartment in Brighton, I trekked determinedly to the apartment of the guy I was seeing in Somerville, where he acted sulky and slept a lot and I read my Kindle until I passed out. I felt lost and shitty, and nothing was helping. I wanted to go home.

In case I would forget the details, I can relive the timestamps.

Perhaps it gets to me excessively as someone who used to keep a pretty detailed manual record of my movements and daily activities (you know, the kind of person who would journal a period-by-period breakdown of days in middle school and what the teachers said to me). The data is used to tell computers how to treat me, but the natural inclination I have is to attach a story to the data, to dramatize GPS locations into life-changing moments. It’s no wonder Apple found it so easy to make this vaguely disturbing commercial or that the move Her is probably going to ruin all of our lives. Our data literally has a sexiness to it, a sexiness that we create by interpretation. I can watch my recent breakup with my long-term boyfriend happen in Google’s location data, watch myself walk in circles around my neighborhood, retreat to a friend’s house, sob in a public park at midnight. I can watch myself walk to get bagels that have comforted me. I can watch myself wake up in my friend’s Seattle apartment during a visit in April and watch us take the bus to a farmer’s market.

I want to just stick to the memories, but the data is tantalizing, like some kind of affidavit signed by reality that these things did, in fact, actually happen.

Having stopped with the obsessive cataloguing of my early adolescence, I’ve become more enchanted with the snapshots, the hodgepodge, and literal disorganization of memory. You can look at Google’s data points as part of that same collage, especially because I probably won’t find myself returning to them more than a few times a year (I have things to do, you know). But despite its random tendency to place me on a street in Back Bay I’ve literally never visited in my life, Google Location Services has a pretty comprehensive data set about where I’ve gone and what I’ve done. Its willingness to recapture that data into something that I can read and interpret is kind of like an unwanted slap on the ass, a snide question in my ear: “what are you doing here?” I kind of wish it weren’t there. Or maybe that it weren’t so comprehensive. Mine didn’t even start collecting data for me until December of 2012 (when I got a new phone), and even with that small sample size, the amount of information is overwhelming both emotionally and literally.

But I’m not going to turn it off.

I might want to check the affidavit again.