The Couples Who Use Location Sharing to Track Each Other 24/7


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Two years in, Mike Mancini and his girlfriend agreed it was time to take their relationship to the next level. The couple had just moved to a new city, and it was only natural that they solidified their partnership and made a lasting commitment to each other.

They opened their iPhones and turned on location sharing — indefinitely.

“It’s not about trust or making sure that we’re not cheating or anything,” he says. “It’s more of a useful thing for times where we’re meeting up and I want to see how close she is to the destination, or checking to see if she’s still at work without asking her. One time I even helped her get her phone back when she left it on the train, because I could see its location still.”

Are GPS Apps Messing With Our Brains?

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We’re becoming navigational idiots. The problem isn’t GPS itself. The Global Positioning System, which uses a constellation of satellites to determine one’s location on the globe, is just a way of fixing points on a map. Rather, the problem is how smartphone apps such as Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze display our routes. Because these apps seek primarily to direct us efficiently from A to B, their default presentation is a landscape somewhere between minimalist and impoverished—typically a fat colored line (your route) running through a largely featureless void. Mappers call this goal-oriented perspective” egocentric.” It’s all about you.

Paper maps, by contrast, use an “allocentric” presentation—one that forces you to plan and frame your route within a meaningful context: towns, forts, universities, parks, and natural features named for local heroes and history (such as Lake Champlain and Smugglers’ Notch in my home state of Vermont), distinctive shapes (Camel’s Hump), or local flora and fauna. (The Winooski River, which flows through my town, gets its name from the Abenaki word for the wild onion that grows on its banks.) Such maps bear a rough but essential resemblance to the mental map locals carry in their heads.

…The distinction between these two wayfinding modes interests not just mapmakers, but neuroscientists, for each draws upon a distinctive neural network to understand space and move us through it. Your phone’s default egocentric (or “cue-based”) mode is the domain of the caudate nucleus, a looping, snake-shaped structure that is heavily involved in movement and closely tied to areas of the brain that respond to simple rewards.

Navigating by map—often called a cognitive mapping strategy because it builds and draws on the map in your head—primarily uses the hippocampus, an area in the center of the brain crucial to spatial memory, autobiographical memory, and our ability to ponder the future.

While most of us favor one or the other of these navigational strategies, both are required; lose either and you’ll soon lose your way.


Ignore the GPS. That Ocean Is Not a Road.

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Earlier this month, Noel Santillan, an American tourist in Iceland, directed the GPS unit in his rental car to guide him from Keflavik International Airport to a hotel in nearby Reykjavik. Many hours and more than 250 icy miles later, he pulled over in Siglufjordur, a fishing village on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle…

Mr. Santillan shouldn’t be blamed for following directions. Siglufjordur has a road called Laugarvegur, the word Mr. Santillan — accurately copying the spelling from his hotel booking confirmation — entered in lieu of Laugavegur, a major thoroughfare in Reykjavik. The real mystery is why he persisted, ignoring road signs indicating that he was driving away from Iceland’s capital. According to this newspaper, Mr. Santillan apparently explained that he was very tired after his flight and had “put his faith in the GPS.”

Faith is a concept that often enters the accounts of GPS-induced mishaps. …

If we’re being honest, it’s not that hard to imagine doing something similar ourselves. Most of us use GPS as a crutch while driving through unfamiliar terrain, tuning out and letting that soothing voice do the dirty work of navigating. Since the explosive rise of in-car navigation systems around 10 years ago, several studies have demonstrated empirically what we already know instinctively. Cornell researchers who analyzed the behavior of drivers using GPS found drivers “detached” from the “environments that surround them.” Their conclusion: “GPS eliminated much of the need to pay attention.”

We seem driven (so to speak) to transform cars, conveyances that show us the world, into machines that also see the world for us… Could society’s embrace of GPS be eroding our cognitive maps?