Why does the experience of being lost feel so valuable? It seems to me that this is one more myth about how people are supposed to engage with the city: to give over to discovery, imagination, and self-reliance. All of these, the myth assumes, lurk in the unknown and unplanned, not in the daily commute from A to B and back again.
And yet, individuals’ different understandings of geography are so subjective, founded on observation and experience and desire. My map of Paris may look nothing like yours, or like Google’s. But when I’m following it I’m neither lost nor found. I’m simply attuned to my city. Getting lost is not as important as being alert to the world, even when you know where you’re going.
To start, people massively overestimate the power of GPS. It’s not like there’s mobile service everywhere you go, and even if you have a signal, the results it beams down are not always available in a language you can read. Half the time the blue dot that locates your position is in the wrong place—confused by network latency, signal barriers, or physical obstructions. The caverns created between big-city buildings are particularly susceptible to inaccuracy.
But even when it works, you can get lost even with a smartphone in hand. The technology is imperfect, city dwellers’ ability to use it is imperfect, and so their guided journeys are imperfect as well. Smartphones generate their own kind of lostness, with its own unexpected pleasures.
Google Maps is a dense network of references to ideas beyond the map, too. Bridle assumes the app’s blue dot is an innocuous, universal You Are Here sign. But the location dot doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Some people can immediately understand the context of streets in which it appears; they aren’t fazed when it suddenly jumps to another street, or into the Seine, or when the orientation swings as you turn your phone around, trying to match the map to the territory. The blue dot assumes an anonymous collective—anyone who is right here is the same—but it doesn’t replace your own individual failings.
Even in Paris, a city I know better than any other, there are parts of town where I still get lost, with or without my phone to hand. The city’s 20 arrondissements are built in the form of a snail shell, which begins with its bull’s-eye trained on the royal center of the Louvre and the Tuileries. The inner ones are easier to navigate. In the outer rings, the compass has been turned on its side. I get lost every single time I walk in the 11th. Streets that would run north-south in the center now run northwest-southwest, or shift off on unexpected 90 degree angles in some as yet undiscovered cardinal direction. Locating myself doesn’t necessarily help me know where I am.
Even with a smartphone in my pocket, I sometimes have to navigate by clues, hints suggested to me by the barest suggestion of a memory. A few years ago, trying to get from the metro to a bar I’ve been to just once before, this is how I worked. I looked at where I was going on the map. All I see are angles that mean nothing to me, here on the ground. I see on the map there is a street jutting from the Place de la République, in an unexpected direction, like a broken leg. The oddness of the way it looks on the map and in real life coincide. Rue Béranger: That seems familiar. I continue on this street, passing another street where I once wanted to turn, and did, and found it was the wrong street, and had to walk back up to the Rue Béranger. This time I walk past it and continue to the intersection with a busy street and two calm ones, checking myself against the phone as I go. The middle one looks like the one that I had to cross last time I went to this bar. I take the middle street. Then I see on the left the street that looked like the one I had to take last time: Rue de Normandie.