I fell in love with wandering aimlessly through cities when I moved to New York. It’s a particular kind of freedom derived from donning a cloak of anonymity and setting out to do nothing in particular. When letting the concrete draw your feet endlessly onward – an irresistible, almost religious pleasure – avoiding the distraction of a phone is of paramount importance. We’ve become so accustomed to augmenting reality with screens that it can feel like a somehow radical choice to even temporarily forego joining our physical world with an often more alluring digital one.
So radical is this decision to be fully present – without any external aid – that you practically can’t do it in civil society without drawing suspicion. Take my favorite venue: the subway. The Q train from DeKalb to Canal to 14th Street is my route of choice, where the audience is captive for long stretches without the interference of doors opening every ten or so blocks, and the express speed creates more space between the insides of the subway car and the world passing by. I’ll sit, look around, look alive, take everything in, and most importantly make eye contact with anyone who allows me that trespass. In a place New Yorkers uniformly agree can be one of the more miserable in this city, and over which we have no control, this kind of undivided attention can only signal complete delusion. If the opportunities for escape while aboard are limitless, to forsake them all is nearly criminal. Though most of the time I’m eventually drawn into one digital realm or another, I’ve found this social experiment useful for insight into our present state of endless distractibility. But the subway is just one obvious place to prefer to check out of, and the experience of a constantly fractured reality is not limited to it.
In September, I took a trip through Europe. I reluctantly bought a European phone package after two weeks of operating without data. I used up the minimal data allotment within days, rendering the package useless. Underneath the veneer of my adventurous spirit and go-with-the-flow mentality, I was unsettled traveling across Albania and north to Montenegro, Serbia, and Hungary via a patchwork of buses and trains while unable to look up transit information from my smartphone. This obstacle forced my brain to grudgingly churn to life, rather than operate in its usual snooze mode with various technological appendages at the wheel. Instead of finding approximated timetables online, I had to ask actual human beings when and where I would likely need to be to get from one place to another. I fucked up a few times, once getting off a minibus so early that I had to walk for an hour just to get to the beach I’d been aiming for. But once I made peace with the these fuckups and their relative lack of severity, missteps became an accepted and even welcome part of the program.
I had even smugly refused to prepare for the adventure by reading travel blogs – like movie trailers and so many other summations, they often leave me feeling robbed. Superficially presented as an opportunity to dip a toe in, you may end up finding out who dies before you even see the movie. Once you know, what’s the point of seeing it at all? That first experience of something new becomes mediated, irreversibly, through the vocabulary and vision of another person. To turn to travel writing before a trip feels like squandering the chance to be open, free from the help we are now so accustomed to relying on as we go about our days.
After all: when exploring something new, we want to be free. But as much as I cannot stand down-to-the-minute itineraries, going in blind in strict adherence to a lack of preparation can feel willfully ignorant. On this recent trip, I encountered both extremes. My friend Stela sent an itinerary for Albania that was a simple list of places without any prescribed times or dates, sometimes without even a mention of the city or town where I was to find the suggested thing. It was, in the end, more of a to-do list than an itinerary. By contrast, upon arrival to Budapest my friend Ting-Ting presented me with a printed-out Google spreadsheet, spanning multiple tabs that included the broadest universe of information – how much the Turkish baths would cost, estimated travel time and route options between various destinations, the phone number of the U.S. embassy. Where Stela refused to make a plan for the following day, Ting-Ting followed the blue dot representing our current location like a hawk as we walked from point A to point B.
Forsaking the seemingly boundless information at our fingertips can result in massive and easily avoidable failure. But we lose so much when we negotiate our physical environment from the perspective of a global network. Ricocheting between the digital and physical worlds can create a new normal of constant vertigo. We’ve become less comfortable taking in information only through our physical senses. Maybe it’s due to some natural, evolutionary drive that we want to arm ourselves with as much information as possible. And maybe the most human thing we can do is resist that temptation in favor of greater experiential freedom. It's wrong, and even dangerous, to imagine that our technologies might really know it all. Yet we fall prey to this idea, whether we believe it completely or not, with reliable and terrifying consistency. No matter how much data comes to exist, it will always be both subjective and deficient.
Even still, when my mother and stepfather visit New York, their lack of planning infuriates me. I'm boiling over on the sidewalk as they zig zag with no particular destination in mind. Walking across the same intersection twice in the same hour has me seeing red. But how could I feel this way, when I admit already to my love of getting lost? One charitable read of my emotions might be that I love this city so much that I want their experience to be as wonderful as my own has been. A less forgiving read is that I'm that asshole who thinks she really knows the city, and that I know all the best ways to experience it. I'm ashamed by the number of times I've walked down the street of someplace I used to haunt in the company of out-of-towners and exclaim what something used to be and isn't anymore.
And its wandering un-augmented, so to speak, that allows you to be punched in the face by unanticipated information when expecting something else. The presence of the new thing knocks you out and forces you to acknowledge its presence. Even the simple removal of something that served as a navigational beacon can be an emotional experience. Your body remembered it, it anchored you to the real world, and now it’s gone. Over time, repeated sentiments build up and slosh together so that each time you come across a new error in your understanding of the environment, you draw upon and can fall into this preexisting well of emotions. Maybe you’re thinking about your old bodega, which is probably a froyo place by now, or that time you cried on the park bench across the street, which seems less appropriate now that the bench is bathed in the blinding light of a trendy snack place adorned with suggested Instagram hashtags on the front door.
Even if you’re not looking at the bench exactly but up the avenue far away from there, scanning for oncoming traffic, you’re already getting the sense that something about this block is different than you remembered. Dodging cyclists, you might realize that the only difference on this particular block is the absence of scaffolding in front of the drugstore. A minor face lift, not the replacement of a neighborhood gem with something shiny and lifeless. But the facts don't matter, because now you’ve had an emotional experience on this block caused by something as commonplace as the removal of scaffolding. And the next time you cross the street here, maybe a year from now, you'll feel a warm sensation and think surely this block has sentimental value, and what a pity that you don't remember why.
They say technology is rewiring our brains, but maybe technology is one way we try to make sense of it all by building brains outside ourselves: poorly translating the code already hardwired into us, projecting what we know or think we know onto the world at hand. Rebecca Solnit wrote that “a city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.” I try to keep that in mind when I get the itch to reach for my phone while walking in neighborhoods where I’ve yet to make any memories. I don’t always succeed. But when I do, when I’m momentarily triumphant, the feeling is sublime.