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17 December 2020

What we lose when we no longer get lost

The smartphone has made getting around a city safer, but at what cost to human experience?  

By Ido Vock

“One day I was walking among rows of identical houses; I was lost,” the narrator of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities mourns. Calvino was writing about the fictional city of Cecilia, and through it Venice, but he could have been describing staggering along interchangeable cul-de-sacs in any number of postwar suburbs.

Invisible Cities carries a timeless resonance for those who seek out the delights and vices of urban life. Calvino’s fantastical metropolises, crafted alternately of alabaster and hemp and rubbish, reflect so much of what real cities have to offer: limitless wealth; exhilarating anonymity; filth. Much of what Calvino wrote about has not aged over half a century.

Yet I cannot help but feel that his chapter on Cecilia has lost some of its pertinence to the modern reader. After all, it is almost impossible to get lost in a city anymore.

The ubiquity of GPS-enabled smartphones means that virtually everyone has access to a pinpoint-accurate map at any time of the day or night. Your precise location, accurate to a few metres, appears instantly when you open a maps app. Directions via any number of modes of transport can be summoned in seconds, complete with timetables or the locations of nearby dockless scooters. Even in a place without signal, your phone’s GPS chip can indicate your location superimposed upon an approximate map of abstract polygons; the unloaded map.

Of course, there are exceptions: your phone can run out of battery, smash, or get stolen. Still, anyone not carrying a functioning mobile is part of a small minority indeed. Research by Pew Research estimates that more than 80 per cent of Americans own a smartphone, rising to more than 90 per cent of under-50s. The average person looks at their phone around 150 times a day – equivalent to every seven waking minutes. They contain our photos, our conversations, the side of us we publicise and what we’d prefer to stay hidden – and, yes, our location.

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All this means that being lost in the city is an experience that has been, for the most part, eradicated. By this, I don’t mean getting a little lost, like when you overshoot by a couple of streets on a route you thought was familiar, or can’t find a particular outlet in a shopping centre. I mean, hopelessly, tragically lost, like when you fall asleep on the night bus, miss your stop and are dropped off at the end of the line, left squinting at unfamiliar street names, or losing your bearings as you stagger out of a party in the dead of night. You could swear you’ve already passed that close – haven’t you?

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A new inability to lose oneself has many advantages. For some, that is a simple sense of reassurance: the anthropologist Franco La Cecla wrote of the fear of being lost as “sometimes stronger and more terrifying than the act itself, because it means to be adrift, with none of the security associated with the familiar”. For others, it is of critical importance to their safety: ending up inebriated in an unfamiliar neighbourhood takes on rather a different timbre for, say, visible minorities or women, for whom cities can pose specific dangers.

[See also: The shadow pandemic: 243 million women have experienced physical or sexual abuse in the last year]

Yet, if you are physically secure, there is a particular pleasure to being lost in a city, old or new. Seeking hints about where a destination forces you to observe your environment more closely, searching for clues in the surrounding architecture and heightening your senses. Looking up at your environment rather than down at your phone can give you a better sense of the city, precisely because it is more inefficient than having exact directions.

The prototypical American city, with its numbered grid of square blocks, can even become an ally in the search for bearings. Nineteenth century planners in the New World rationalised urban design, drawing their strict geometric plans from a tradition dating back to Imperial Rome. “In New York you never get lost; a glance suffices to show you that you are on the East Side, at the corner of Fifty-second Street and Lexington,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, summarising his impressions of Manhattan’s graph paper grid through a European lens.

By contrast, in Europe, twisting streets linked by no obvious overarching pattern are much less amenable to the astray. Instinctively locating oneself on semi-medieval streets named for long-dead generals requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of a city, gained only through a lifetime of experience or intense study. The unkind teenage narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia remarks of his Indian-born, south London-living father’s poor sense of direction: “I sweated with embarrassment when … he ask[ed] for directions to places that were a hundred yards away in an area where he’d lived for almost two decades.”

Indeed, London cabbies are required to pass a test simply named “the Knowledge,” which requires memorising every street in London. It is one of the most gruelling intellectual exercises around and takes years to master, and is also a complete anachronism.

Heading nowhere in particular as I arrive in a city is my favourite way to get to know a new place. When I first arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia, I spent weeks ambling along narrow streets of crumbling Imperial Russian grandeur concealing courtyards with lines of billowing laundry and old men playing dominos. I would stop in tiny bakeries and pick up a slice of khachapuri – the artery-clogging mass of cheese and bread that is the signature Georgian snack   to fuel my onward travel towards nowhere in particular; ending at a ruined church, ivy licking up crumbling red brick.

Under the right conditions, getting lost remains one of the most enjoyable ways to discover hitherto unnoticed facets of the city. It can also be terrifying and perilous. For the latter reasons, we should be grateful that the experience has been all but eliminated. Yet even so, I wonder if we have lost something to the all-knowing wisdom of the smartphone.

[See also: Why Moscow’s snowless winters are a warning to the world]