Does a controversial new app herald the death of street smarts?

Let’s get one thing straight: Microsoft wasn’t actually stupid enough to call their new GPS feature the “avoid ghetto” app when they applied for a patent. That term was apparently coined by a local Seattle TV station. But it immediately became the name of choice for a smartphone function that mines violent crime stats to help users avoid an “unsafe neighborhood.”

The app isn’t on the market yet, but it didn’t take long for the Internet to come down hard on Microsoft. The Root called it “ludicrous.” Jezebel wondered whether it was “dude-centric.” Sarah E. Chinn, author of Technology and Racism, was quoted saying, “A more useful app would be for young black men to be able to map blocks with the highest risks of their being pulled over or stopped on the street by police.”

All of these people make valid points. The app ignores the diversity of risk for different demographic groups. It’s a blunt instrument that could lead to entire neighborhoods being stigmatized. It perpetuates stereotypes.

But here’s what bothers me even more: I worry that this app (along with many others) heralds the death of street smarts.

Whatever happened to being able to look around you and use your eyes and ears (not to mention your nose) to determine whether you were somewhere safe or not?

Whatever happened to looking at the people on the sidewalk around you, and the businesses on a given street, and deciding whether this was a place you wanted to be or not?

I love my iPhone, too, but I don’t need it to tell me which way the wind blows.

A few days ago, I was walking home with my 9-year-old son when I came upon a young woman standing in the middle of Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn, a block-wide island of green in the city’s downtown. She was staring fixedly at her smartphone, which she held up in front of her as if using it to sense a magnetic field, or perhaps radioactive contamination.

As I passed, she turned to look at me suddenly, her face drawn and anxious. “Excuse me,” she said. “Can you tell me which way to the Brooklyn Bridge?”

I turned around and pointed to the bridge entrance, which was in plain sight about 20 yards from where we were standing. “Thank you so much!” she said. “I just couldn’t figure it out with my GPS!”

“Wow,” said my kid as we continued on. “That’s really sad.”

Everywhere you go these days, people are waving their phones around like dowsing devices, trying to find a place to eat, or a subway stop, or a bookstore. Are they finding them? Yes. My question is, what are they not finding? What serendipitous journeys are they not taking?

I miss the notion that a city is something to be discovered through human senses, rather than digital devices. That we can track our progress by using physical landmarks. That we can follow our instincts around the next corner and stumble upon something entirely new. (And no, I definitely am not talking about downloading yet another app that would suggest ways that we can add “whimsy” to our peregrinations.)

What if we don’t know where we’re going? Well, we can always ask. The richness of urban experience is grounded in face-to-face human interaction. Not face-to-phone.

Eli Pariser, one of the founding forces behind and author of The Filter Bubble, has written and spoken powerfully about the way that algorithms have narrowed our experience of the Internet,. As search engines continue to serve up results that reflect searches we’ve already made, we’re more and more confined to a slowly and progressively narrower intellectual echo chamber. In a New York Times op-ed, Pariser wrote this:

Democracy depends on the citizen’s ability to engage with multiple viewpoints; the Internet limits such engagement when it offers up only information that reflects your already established point of view. While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t.

I’m worried that the same filter bubble is at work in our cities, that the grand tradition of flâneurism is being eroded by a rote navigation system bounded by maps and apps. As for who generates the data and who devises the algorithms behind those apps? Your phone won’t give you that information.

We used to be able to track animals through the forest. Now we’re creating an environment where we need Yelp to guide us to the nearest dim sum place. What does this mean for our future ability to find our way around? At the very least, it doesn’t bode well for our self-confidence, our faith in our own ability to find our way through the urban landscape.

Sometimes, batteries run out. Signals fail. And sometimes, algorithms are flawed and reductive. If we keep this up, will we still know which way north is?

For now, I’m trying to keep my own GPS navigation to a minimum. And I’m teaching my kid how to get around town on the strength of his own brain.

Because no app loads as fast as the human mind.

Top image credit: Bobby Yip / Reuters

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