Future Tense

Your Phone Can Show You Just How Much Your Life Has Shrunk in the Pandemic

Fitbit and globe.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Fitbit and the New York Public Library/Unsplash.

This is part of Six Months In, a Slate series reflecting on half a year of coronavirus lockdown in America.

Every month since COVID-19 began, Google Maps Timeline has taunted me with my Monthly Update, an email summary of my personal location history—where I’ve been, how many new places I visited, how much distance I’ve covered, and what percentage of the circumference of the globe this accounts for. I’m not sure whether Google means to ridicule me (although how else can you describe showing someone exactly what the worst year of their life looks like?), and I’m sure I could unsubscribe from this service if I wanted, but I do not. I continue to open it each month, because the numbers are painfully fascinating.

While in January I went to 27 places, in August I went to just six. In February, I covered 15 miles walking, 14 miles riding my bike, and 725 miles by car; I drove less than that in April, May, June, July, and August combined. My July update tells me that at the midway point of 2020, I’ve traveled a total of 2,372 miles, or “10 percent around the world.” My 2019 summary, the first of these uninvited missives, told me I made it 23,973 miles, or “1 time around the world.” Don’t even get me started on the disparity in “highlights” between my local park and Bosque de Chapultepec.

Globes that show the author's 100% way around the Earth in 2019 and 10% so far in 2020.

When I open the Timeline map, red dots scatter the globe, a spotted representation of my life since 2017 (the year Google first introduced Timeline on iOS). Filter it down to just 2020, and life looks a hell of a lot smaller. A daily bar chart runs across the top, indicating how much I traveled each day, a stark reminder of my reduction in movement. The bars droop over March and April, rising slightly in June and July, flattening out to almost nothing in August, when my city in Australia entered its strictest lockdown yet. (Hey, at least one curve is flattening.) Many days in August show no activity at all.

Since April, the email has opened with a trigger warning: “This Timeline email is an automated summary of places you’ve been, which may be fewer this month due to the COVID-19 response in your area.” As if I could forget. But technology’s tendency to measure and quantify our lives makes the before and after of this disruption black and white. Whether we’re self-tracking or being tracked without our knowledge, there are monstrous amounts of data showing exactly how COVID-19 has upended lives, changed habits, reimagined work, flattened social life, converted dating life, rearranged (or disarranged) education, reinvented live entertainment, and halted travel as we know it. Some days it’s harder to remember the Before Times or to grasp how much things have really changed. But the data is clear.

As part of Slate’s package on the first six months of the pandemic, we’re asking readers to submit their own observable tech-related shifts. Perhaps your steps are down; perhaps your Screen Time is up; perhaps your Uber trips are down, but your Uber Eats orders are way, way up. Perhaps your Nintendo Switch shows you’ve spent 720 hours on Animal Crossing: New Horizons. No shame—your island must be beautiful. We want to see it.

Please send your COVID tech before and afters, along with a brief description, to sixmonthsofcovid@slate.com, and we’ll publish the best of the lot. (Make sure to check your screenshots and blur or crop out personal information.)

In the meantime, I’ll be watching the red dots of 2019 hop continents, stay in hostels, dance with strangers, attend a wedding, use public transport, drink in pubs, and take part in what is now possibly the most high-risk event I can imagine, a tomato throwing festival in Spain—and hope that next Sunday, I remember to take my state-permitted hour of daily exercise.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.