Unlost, or Cell Phones and the Age of Colliding

August 4, 2011 § 13 Comments

I wanted a map. The only unmet desire I had from my warped old clamshell cell phone was access to a map. For this desire I had a perfectly symmetrical argument: I will never again be lost. No more will I get off the subway and not know which way is North, nor realize I’ve forgotten to write down the address of a party or meeting room. No more will I stare at the dumb faces of buildings, trying to match their bricked frames and shaded windows with an arrangement of numbers and letters, whose only real order lies in some old civic planner’s papers, which even she’s forgotten by the time I’m trying to find the outlines of her work in the gloaming streets of outer Queens.

The guts of cell phones have kaleidoscope’d into quasi-sentient beings over the last decade and I have finally accepted one of these new quasi-sentient beings into my life. It is a white rectangle  with a touchscreen that preserves splotchy swirls of oil whenever I touch it or press its charged glass against my face. The price of this added presence is an extra 20 dollars of monthly fees and a renewal of my years-old promise to stay true to my satellite provider in the sky. Even with maps available at all times I  get lost with the same frequency,  it’s only the process of discovering how to become unlost has quickened.

Rather than retreating to the shady backyard of my memory in search of a glinting hint of cartographic data, I withdraw from my physical circumstances and further darken the outer limits of stored thought in the glow of my phone screen. Periodic confirmations of the data truth break up a walk that becomes as formless and forgettable as a dream, easily overwritten by the next data point on the itinerary.

My old method for navigation was no less stupid. Before leaving my apartment I’d enter an address into my phone’s text message application and save it as a draft. Then I’d look up the address on a map of some kind, memorize the general overlay, and set off. There was no division between data, movement, and the continual consideration of everything around me. The color of the air, the writing on signs, the lean of a doorway, the smell of trash piled up on the streets, the tile mural on the subway platform–all these imbued themselves into the single, arbitrary data point snared in the circuitry of my crappy cell phone.

There is a tendency to fret over and fear the effects of technology on our lives. We wonder if cell phones cause cancer, if social media deepens social instability, and fear confirmation bias encouraged by easy access to information. Facebook causes bullying, Twitter is sparking revolutions, cell phones cameras are transforming us into content drones for the information matrix. The imprint of fear is always the same, things are acting on us from the outside and we must do something.

Many things act on us from the outside, but very few of them change us in any meaningful way. Technology is defined by our desires. It may warp our momentary experiences by overindulging impulses but whatever sentience technology contains is an imprint of our own.

Having a device that quickly connects to a vast stream of data points is a pretext to escape discomfort, or to anesthetize it into an barely perceptible sliver. I am never caught alone and unsure how to comport myself in a bar while waiting for a friend. A moment waiting at a red light next to six strangers on a sidewalk can be made productive by a check for any new stirrings to have come burbling up from the machine. Was that buzzing a new email? A text message? An alarm notification for a deadline? Did someone, somewhere mention me? Was there even really a buzz?

It’s been argued we live in an Information Age but it seems to confuse the product for the mechanism that created it. Information is the imprint of interaction, the faintest and least interesting remnant of an exchange between people, and that also makes it the easiest denominator to use in our digital call and response. Information is, as it always has been, a pretext for connection and not a cause of it. I do not friend people on Facebook to be enlightened by their information streams but do so out of a want for closeness with them that is only awkwardly and obnoxiously provided by the record of their likes, photos, and check-ins.

“For all its democratic potential, the fact-filled internet has only heightened the pre-Google asymmetry between those, on one side, loyal to Baconian methods of patient, inductive gathering of facts–the ways of the card catalog and the archive, of the analysis and evaluation of empirical data–and those, on the other side, who didn’t need to read Foucault or the Frankfurt School to nurture suspicion that positivist orders of knowledge mask a hierarchy of power in which they ware meant to occupy the lowest rungs,” an uncredited n+1 author wrote in the magazine’s 11th issue, in an essay on modern access to information.

This sentiment prioritizes having information over the desire to seek an answer in the first place. Information, as an endpoint, is worthless. If my quasi-sentient companion in my front pocket is only a conduit to information, he is not worth the price I’ve paid for him.

The year I lived in China I spent my winter vacation traveling along in Xinjiang, the frozen lunar sprawl in China’s Northwest between Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. It took five days of train travel to arrive in Urumqi, the provincial capital. I had no idea what I was going to do there, no points of interest to see, nor any friends to meet. The temperature slowly moved between -10 and -20 Celsius. The tourists had gone, and the gruff and mistrustful Uyghurs barely understood my wobbly Chinese. Their accents were, likewise, mystifying to me. I was going to stay for 2 weeks, but I had no idea where or what I would do. I had just decided from the map that this was a place I wanted to go and I was going to stay for as long as I could.

I got off the train at 8AM, the ground covered in ice with banks of frozen snow piled up along the sidewalks. I took a room at the first hotel I saw, dropped off my bags, and went back outside to walk. I became lost almost immediately, and over the next 10 hours I slipped and stumbled alone through a city of 2.6 million without a map and unable to read the street signs. It was a small epoch of thought and feeling, spanning joyful discoveries and hopeless self-loathing at my stupidity, stuck in the middle of a faceless communist suburb skirted with frozen snow and the rushing indifference of traffic on the wide avenues.

At sunset I came again into a neighborhood I recognized, the anchor points in the darkening skyline matched the memory of them I’d formed in the bright morning. I began to see signs for the central train station and I very quickly reverse-engineered the location of my hotel and, half an hour later, stumbled into it, nearly frozen beneath my clothes.

I’ve tried to mirror this experience in New York. I’d take a subway line as far out as I dared, get off at a stop that seemed unknown, and try to walk my way back to familiar ground. It’s never quite the same, the sense of loss, excitement, discovery, and panic are dampened by the inevitable familiarity of one throughway or another. I didn’t even know I had a sense for which direction Flushing Ave. points until that was the only familiar marker I had.

Even in safely limited circumstances, the moments defined by an absence of information are both beautiful and exhausting. A life needs efficiency and forward momentum. Being lost is only a momentary condition, we can only prolong the moment when something familiar appears again. What I discover in my emerging habits with my new little data servant is that my desire to experience loss and ignorance is disembodied. It loses its pavement, its street signs, its anchor points in the skyline, and instead becomes a missing blip in a feed, an indifference to my stirrings, an absent friend still in transit, or else the longed after friend who I’d rather be with.

And so the thought of loss, not its physical processes, moves my palpitating thumbs over the slicked surface or glass and light, discovering in each new artifact of information something missing. I often walk now looking downward into the stream, only breaking my fixation when something comes close enough to appear in my periphery, an out of focus body suddenly sharpened into a person, and for a moment it seems like we might collide.

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