People Will Always Get Lost

GPS-equipped smartphones were supposed to put an end to going off course. They didn't, and they never will.

A bird's-eye view of Paris, France
Zsolt Hlinka / Getty

On the sense-of-direction scale, mine is immeasurably bad. I simply cannot find my way. The minute I try to make sense of a map, an unfathomable emotional process takes over. I can get within two missteps of where I need to be, but in the time it takes from when I realize I’m lost to when I get to where I’m going—even if it’s only five minutes—I panic. Cheeks burn. Heart speeds up. Ears get hot. Mind turns to water.

Having a smartphone has only given me the illusion of control. If you can’t read a map, you can’t read a map, especially if the map is as seriously impaired as Google Maps. The blue dot might be showing your location 20 meters away from where you’re standing. The affective experience of being lost quickly inflates from a local problem of orientation to a general feeling of ontological failure. I feel worse than incompetent: I feel illiterate.

It doesn’t matter what kind of devices you carry in your pocket: When you’re out in the city, you’re on your own.

“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal,” the early 20th-century critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his memoir of his childhood in Berlin. “It requires ignorance—nothing more.” Then he continued:

But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—this calls for quite a different schooling. Then, signboards and street names, passersby, roofs, kiosks, and bars must speak to the wanderer like a twig snapping under his foot in the forest.

Benjamin is distinguishing between his own personal failing—he too had a dismal sense of direction—and what he calls “the art of straying.” But is not being able to find one’s way really as uninteresting as Benjamin says? On the contrary, there’s nothing banal about being hopelessly, accidentally, unenjoyably lost.

Not being able to find my way triggers an onslaught of emotions ranging from alarm to abandonment. It activates earlier memories of lostness and despair. Just as the “schooled” traveler has learned to become aware of the sensory richness of his or her surroundings, so has the person who is lost in the city gone beyond a “banal” annoyance and accessed a more profound level of alienation, built up through years of failure to decode the layout of the world.

There is a distinct sense of embarrassment, as if everyone on the street has suddenly been alerted: lost person at large. (We give the other people on the street with us all kinds of power.) When I’m lost, I launch into a public performance piece entitled I Am Completely in Control of the Situation. “Was it here ... or there?” I mutter as I walk back the way I came, imagining that everyone is thinking, “Why has that person just made a U-turn like she doesn’t know where she’s going?” The sense of shame is keen.

This experience has not gone away since I got a smartphone. And yet owners of these devices are regularly reminded—reprimanded, even—that it is no longer possible to get lost once they stow a GPS tracking device in a purse or pocket. It is as if it were impossible to be serious about one’s flânerie if the iPhone is at hand.

In the age of the smartphone, rhetoric about the joys and virtues of lostness has amplified as it squares off with this technological bête noire. In an issue of Travel and Leisure, the humorist Patricia Marx rejoices on the matter. “These days, when I leave home for a while, I pretty much always know where I’m going, and, thank you Google Maps and GPS, I know how to get there,” she writes. “You will not see me on the road less traveled.” From the way people talk about having GPS on their phones and in their cars, you’d think they’d swapped their brains out for silicon.

People fear a Google-mapped world absconds with serendipitous encounters with place. They worry that it gives them a presumptuous sense of knowing a place, that it makes them less creative. They worry that they are missing the road less traveled. For example, in his essay on GPS in the book Where You Are, the artist James Bridle writes, “The GPS system is a monumental network that provides a permanent You Are Here sign hanging in the sky, its signal a constant, synchronized time code. It suggests the possibility that one need never be lost again; that future generations will grow up not knowing what it means to be truly lost.”

Or, in the same issue of Travel and Leisure that contains Marx’s paean to app maps, Gary Shteyngart laments them. “When you get lost there is a look on your face, a humble, peaceful, dreamy, let-that-crow-fly-in-your-mouth look that invites commentary,” he writes, concluding that “getting lost is getting harder” than it used to be. “We no longer travel to ‘destinations’ but to a series of preset coordinates. Our smartphones are bursting with information. It is possible to stroll confidently down Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, knowing just which soi to turn on ... I doubt two of my last three novels would have happened without my getting lost,” he concludes.

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.

A bell goes off: When I first came here I had just met a guy from Normandy. Long gone, what’s his name even? All the streets around here are named for regions, Rue de Bretagne, Rue de Picardie, Rue de Poitou, since the time when Henry IV wanted to build a massive square celebrating the country, with a street for every part of France. I no longer need the phone: I both know and don’t know where I am. I continue until I hit the Rue de Saintonge. Lo and behold, there’s the bar, over there, the one with all the young people shivering outside of it, their cigarettes frozen to their fingers.

These cognitive maps are not set down in permanent ink; they’re always redrawing themselves, reforming into ever new topography in your mind. Or the lines fade, so that in time, through neglect, you forget they were even there. Even when visiting new cities, people build up a sense of the territory through what they notice about it. These private maps allow individuals to navigate, even though they might not accord with official maps—as anyone who’s tried to get around any of the ancient Mediterranean cities can attest. Some cities were designed to thwart visitors; they have resisted the will of map-makers. Even in the wilds of East London, Google Maps sometimes registers alleyways where there are only fields and leaves blank whole blocks of smaller buildings.

I remember visiting Lisbon and trying to find an arts organization called Carpe Diem, located in the Palácio Pombal. All we found was an abandoned decaying palace. No arts organization. We disbelieved Google Maps, thinking it had led us astray. We combed the street to see if we’d missed it. We went to another location in the city that turned out only to be a bookshop. That week, Lisbon was overdrawn with potential Palácio Pombals, always around the next corner, forever undiscoverable, though clearly marked on the map. GPS can’t touch that subjectivity, that experiential form of navigation.

And when it fails, it does so with wonderful results. A few years ago, on a road trip around the north of England, a friend and I wanted to visit Beatrix Potter’s house in the Lake District. But the name of the house (“Hill Top”) wasn’t in the GPS’s bank of places of interest. There was, however, a listing for “Beatrix Potter Exhibit.” “That must be it!” we said. We drove and drove, and, arriving in a lovely lakeside town, discovered that “Beatrix Potter Exhibit” was some kind of rabbit-themed amusement park for little kids. Hill Top, we learned, was on the other side of the lake, a long car drive or a ferry ride away. Alas, we had no time to lose—our schedule was tight and the house would be closing soon. We gave Beatrix Potter’s house a miss, and after a late lunch in a local workman’s caff, continued on our way to Wordsworth’s house instead. Although we missed what we had come to see, we saw the lovely town of Windermere, and I ate a jacket potato for the first time. If it hadn’t been for GPS, perhaps we never would have gone there. It’s the same kind of happenstance that Shteyngart laments losing. But it hasn’t really been lost—it’s just not what we were expecting. And isn’t that the point?

These days, technophobia mostly involves fears about privacy and freedom, concerns about governments and corporate tracking, data collection, security, and misinformation. There’s also a very real concern about how insecure Google Maps is to hackers, and the fact that our overreliance on the maps may be changing smartphone users’ mental capacity for memory and spatial navigation. Those are admittedly creepy conditions, and let’s do all we can to protect ourselves from them. But on a deeper level, perhaps people fear that machines will dull their humanity. While it’s true that screens can have a deadening effect on our consciousness—David Amsden once complained that they make him feel “like one of those allegorical blob people in Wall-E who float through life staring at screens, oblivious to their surroundings”—but that’s not the end of the story.

The anti-GPS racket is tiresome because we non-machines still have all our glorious human agency. We can choose to stay alert and not give ourselves over to the GPS thinking it will solve all of our directional or existential problems. If we want to get lost, nothing is stopping us from keeping the phones in our pockets. We have our own built-in onboard navigational systems: If only we can learn to trust them.