Inattention Please

by Jessie Roberts

Wayne Curtis praises Serendipitor, a navigation app that encourages you to embrace happenstance:

“Serendipitor is an alternative navigation app for the iPhone that helps you find something by looking for something else,” the developers explain, although not very helpfully. But their explanation gets better: “In the near future, finding our way from point A to point B will not be the problem. Maintaining consciousness of what happens along the way might be more difficult.” Toward that end, the app is “designed to introduce small slippages and minor displacements within an otherwise optimized and efficient route.” Using Google maps as a base, Serendipitor plots random walks for you, from wherever you happen to be to, well, wherever you happen to end up. Along the way “small detours and minor interruptions” pop up, with instructions such as: “Turn left on Chestnut Street and then follow a pigeon until it flies away. Take a photo of it flying.”

I’ve used this app a number of times. And in an obscure kind of way, it actually helps me stop and pay attention. It’s especially handy when I’m traveling. It serves as a sort of anti-guidebook, prodding me out of the deeply worn routes past the usual landmarks, and making me look around. I have yet to take a picture of a pigeon, but Serendipitor once by happenstance had me walk around a school where I watched the tightly choreographed ritual of picking up children at day’s [end] (it was so precisely orchestrated Merce Cunningham could have been behind it). It also once directed me through a sketchy neighborhood where elderly men sat on stoops and watched me with grave suspicion before greeting me with waves and smiles and small conversations. Serendipitor has introduced some minor adventures into otherwise mundane days.

Curtis quotes Walker Percy:

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life,” said Walker Percy’s protagonist in The Moveigoer. “This morning for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be into something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”