Every step you take, we'll be watching you

the ramifications of GPS technology

William Hebblewhite*, Alexander Gillett

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The increasing use of geographic information systems (GIS) in everyday life is profoundly shaping how humans navigate and interact with their surroundings. Behavioural and ethnographic experimental research indicates that increased usage of GPS devices is having a significant impact on human neurocognitive systems, especially memory and perception (Gramann et al., 2017). Despite this, there has only been a limited investigation of the implications of the spread of GIS technologies. In this paper, we explore how habitual reliance on GPS technology undermines autonomous decision-making through “nudging” (Sunstein & Thaler, 2008) – that is, the alteration of psychological behaviour without the explicit forbidding of choice. In particular, we make a novel distinction between what we refer to as “suggestive nudging” – the suggesting of certain routes to take to get to a destination – and “disclosure nudging” – the normalisation of constant tracking and disclosing of our locations to government and corporate actors. We shall argue that although suggestive and disclosure nudging are in principle separate, that in practice they are intertwined in the design of modern GPS devices. Additionally, since human spatial cognition is highly plastic and susceptible to being sculpted by cultural practices (Hutchins, 1995; Levinson, 2003), this exacerbates the negative implications of the ‘in practice’ link of suggestive and disclosure nudging by making the latter harder to avoid and opt out of. We argue that this state of affairs necessitates redesigning GPS devices.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAI & Society
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021

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