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 and 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 re-designing GPS devices.
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We acknowledge that there are a range of other Geographic Information Systems (GIS)—such as the increasing amount of RFID cards in travel cards, bank cards, passports and ID cards, on shipping containers, etc.—which also raise similar quandaries to those that we raise in this paper about the politics of wayfinding technologies. We focus on GPS devices for several reasons. Firstly, a comprehensive discussion of these other technologies would require too much space for a single article. Secondly, the argument we intend to make here is focused on how GPS devices currently work in smartphone technologies. And lastly, the ubiquity of smartphones in our everyday lives entails that this is the most important point at which to discuss interventions and needs for change in GIS design and choice architecture.
It is notable that this way of thinking about measuring and interacting with space is often seen as the default due to a Western-centric focus in psychology (Henrich et al. 2010). But there are numerous examples of alternative frames of references and wayfinding orientational methods that do not have discrete metrics of temporal duration nor spatial distance: e.g. see Hutchins (1995) discussion of Polynesian nautical navigation; and Chao’s (2017) account of wayfinding in Western Papua.
In regards to the notion of deskillment it has been argued by Brown and Laurier (2012) that learning to use a GPS device to navigate does not entail total deskillment since one learns new sets of skills in the proper use of the device. They further point out that the evolution and invention of new technologies always entails the general loss of skills associated with abandoned and replaced technologies; and the emergence of new skills associated with the new technologies. As Gillett and Heersmink (2019) note, this is indeed a core and distinctive feature of human cultural evolution—the streamlining of previous cognitive work to ease the cognitive load of the following generations. But, in the case of GPS devices, the loss of skills here demands our attention because it is linked to undermining certain intellectual virtues, such as autonomy. See Gillett and Heersmink (2019) for further discussion.
Epistemic virtues are defined as knowledge generating capacities that enable reliable and truth-conducive behaviour and thinking. The epistemological literature divides epistemic virtues into faculty based features (e.g. perception, memory, etc.), and character based traits (e.g. open mindedness, intellectual autonomy, etc.). Intellectual autonomy does not entail a sole reliance on oneself. Virtue approaches are based on Aristotelian philosophy and see virtues as balances between extremes. For example, open mindedness is a balance or mean between close minded dogmatism and credulity. As such, a virtuous epistemic agent with intellectual autonomy is one who can rely on their own judgement to assess the testimony of others and various epistemic tools. See Gillett and Heersmink (2019) for more details.
Indeed, in relation to the first concern mentioned above about disclosure nudging, several theorists have noted that RFID cards play a large role in normalising and habituating people into being constantly tracked. For instance, in regards to their increasing presence in schools, Bray (2014, p. 225) notes that “Perhaps the most troubling aspect is that constant tracking of students conditions young people to expect similarly intrusive surveillance as adults”. Gillom and Monahan point out that “students are ‘normalised’ to this surveillance—it becomes commonplace, unquestioned, and unremarkable” (cited in ibid).
We thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue with us.
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We would like to thank the audience at the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy held at the University of Western Sydney 2018 for the helpful discussion following a presentation of this work. We would also like to thank Daphne Brandenburg, Brigid Martin, Thomas Corbyn, Marilyn Stendera, and the anonymous reviewers for feedback. Alexander Gillett would also like to thank Richard Heersmink, Graham Thomas, and McArthur Mingon with whom they are collaborating on related research projects that have contributed to this paper.
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Hebblewhite, W., Gillett, A.J. Every step you take, we’ll be watching you: nudging and the ramifications of GPS technology. AI & Soc (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-020-01098-5
- GPS devices
- Geographic information systems
- Spatial cognition
- Wayfinding technology