For the last few weeks, I have been wandering around Melbourne clutching my GPS-phone like a blanky.
Every few paces I gaze at it lovingly, thumbing at the ‘Map’ icon to watch the glowing blue dot creep its corresponding way across the frame.
The other day, I was so focused on the screen that I walked into a pole.
I took this is a wake-up call (and a bruise).
Because it struck me (yes, literally) that navigating through a place with an iPhone is fundamentally different to finding your way the old way, with just a plain old hippocampus and an inner ear.
The old way, you stumbled. ‘Lostness’ was a default. And ‘location’, such as you could define it, pervaded an area hazily.
‘Place’ used to be a cloud.
But the new way is linear, defined in terms of the shortest path between two points – a path generally mapped out for you beforehand by that supreme machine of urban domesticity, the car.
Facebook Places and Foursquare and Gowalla define place as a conjunction of co-ordinates: you go to a place, not through it. You ‘Check In’ somewhere or ‘stamp’ your ‘passport’– metaphors of tourism, interestingly, borrowed from the bureaucractic world of airlines and hotels – without ever really thinking about the constructedness of that “where.”
And that’s strange, because really, maps are selective, and partial.
I’ve been wandering around St Kilda, and most of what I see isn’t in my Map icon.
Like lamp-posts. A chip packet. A leaf on the pavement. A leak from someone’s garden hose. A shadow. A bird.
None of this is there.
I suppose the weird thing about navigating with an iPhone is that it sort of sucks the world into it, flattening reality in the process.
Your focus fixes on the map, not the world it claims to represent, which makes things tricky because at that point it can become a bit unclear which place is real and which is symbolic…
I want to know: if you zoomed in far enough, to a scale of 1:1, would the map become the real world?
And would the real world suddenly become the map of the map?
It all reminds me of something I read in a book I found the other day (a lush, strange book – look), titled Atlas of the Remote Islands, by someone named Judith Schalansky:
The two dimensional world map strikes a compromise somewhere between impertinently simplifying abstraction and an aesthetic approximation of the world. In the end, it is simply about grasping the extent of the earth, orienting it towards the north and being able to gaze down on it like a god…
I feel like my iPhone lets me gaze godlike on a place without actually knowing what that place means.
It makes me a little bit giddy, really.
And I am much more comfortable being lost.