Atlantic Cities

An App to Help You Lose Yourself in the City

An App to Help You Lose Yourself in the City
Drift

Smart phones have fundamentally changed the way most people navigate around cities (oftentimes, as our Sarah Goodyear wrote earlier this year, with negative consequences for our collective grasp of “street smarts”). Smart phones can get you anywhere, from anywhere, by just about any route or transportation mode imaginable, effectively eliminating the lost art of getting lost in the city.

Now that you’re probably tethered to one of these things, it may be too much to ask of you to leave your smart phone in your pocket. But what if you used it to help you lose your way in the city, instead of finding it? This is the premise behind a new app from the Broken City Lab in Windsor, Ontario.

The tool, called Drift, wants to help you “unfamiliarize” yourself with your neighborhood, as one of its developers, Justin Langlois, puts it. He didn’t necessarily set out to make a commentary on smart-phone technology by inverting its traditional use. But the idea behind Drift dovetails with a growing suite of apps trying to recreate serendipity in the world – some more successfully than others – when modern technology has largely extinguished it.

Drift will offer you a random series of creative cues to guide you on your own “psychogeographic walk” through the city. Maybe it’ll ask you to head two blocks to the west, then look for a crack in the sidewalk, then head in the opposite direction until you stumble across something terrible. The app invites you to photograph your findings – something "undervalued," something "warm," something "out of the ordinary" – to upload into a group photostream that Broken City Lab plans to curate on its website. The directions are all meant to be broadly interpreted (“Find an exchange”? This may mean to one person an exchange of glances on the sidewalk, or to another an exchange of cash at a hot-dog stand.)

All of these idiosyncratic directions won't literally make you “lost.” Drift is trying to use that word playfully.

"The experience is not the same as getting a cab from La Guardia and showing up on some random intersection and trying to figure out your way to the hotel from there," he says. "It’s a lot more about how can you regain that sense of being lost."

Getting "lost" is a means to an end on Drift, not the end in itself. Rather, by recreating that feeling of disorientation, Langlois hopes, you’ll start looking for things you never notice when following the same route to work, or to school every day.

"It’s a lot more using that as a starting point to understand that even though you think you know this place, there’s a lot of things you are probably missing on an ongoing basis,” he says. “When you’re lost somewhere, you really go out of your way to pay attention to these visual cues that become significant markers in your mind.”

Broken City Lab originally designed these walking tours with instructions on old-fashioned sheets of paper. But the app allows for so many more possibilities (there are more than 100 cues), and, more importantly, it gives users the opportunity to photograph their findings for others to see as well. In that sense, this is almost a community art project, inviting you to not only view your neighborhood differently, but to see how it looks through the eyes of your neighbors as well.

“What that does in a larger sense," Langlois says, "is hopefully it gets people understanding that a city, a street and a neighborhood are more than just places to pass through on your way to somewhere else."

This, for instance, is a photo by user Dnessd of “something warm”:

Here’s one from Eli Grimson of “an example of change”:

Bob Hsiung thinks this is “something terrible”:

And user Emily caught this intimate snapshot of “an exchange":

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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