I enjoy going for a drive. Not really looking for adventure… just driving around… I’m trying more and more to learn how to be alone.
– Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Do you remember the days before iPhones and satnavs? Plans to meet with friends used to consist of “I’ll meet you outside The Body Shop at twelve.” If you were running late you just had to hope the other person was still there waiting. If you got lost you had to find your way by asking strangers for directions and wandering down unknown streets, charting your own course.
Now, the most efficient route is prescribed by Google Maps and there’s no reason or excuse to veer off the most direct trajectory. There’s no room for exploration or uncertainty. There’s no space for sauntering.
Where are all the flâneurs? The smartphone has demystified urban space – it’s become too legible and predetermined – whilst also distancing us from our surroundings. Not only has our mostly-unwavering access to 4G limited the way we move through our environment, it’s stopped us looking around and participating in the life of the street. Whilst navigating with Google Maps I find myself holding my iPhone aloft and just following it like the North Star, monitoring my progress on the virtual map rather than looking around at the street down which I’m walking. I no longer notice the nuances from postcode to postcode and miracles of urban space – architectural flourishes, people, emerging fashions, ghost signs and other fragments of old London, voices/accents around me, blue plaques commemorating pioneering Londoners.
The virtue of getting lost is, of course, about discovery. It’s also about being alone. Technology can make us feel pathologically isolated and lonely (#mobilephonepsychosis), yet with our iPhones we’re never truly alone. The possibility (and therefore the thrill) of feeling alone is almost extinct. Some of my most exhilarating times have involved being lost and on my own in a new place – trying to find my hotel in Florence at dusk, taking a random bus in New York, looking for the telephone box David Bowie stood next to on the Ziggy Stardust cover, armed only with a copy of the LP and the vague idea is was ‘somewhere around Covent Garden’.
We have all the information of the world wide web at our fingertips, yet when we use Google Maps we don’t acquire or retain knowledge, we simply stream it. Using a copy of the A-Z (it’s like an app, yeah? but it’s printed out into a book) requires actual interaction with your environment – you must refer to the map in your hand and then try to establish your location by looking around for landmarks. You must decide on the best route by studying the map and understanding your relationship with the streets and roads and alleyways around you. You are forced to understand your position in the world.
So turn your phone off for a spell and fall back in love with your surroundings.