The Psychogeography of the iPhone


A year ago January, I started what I intended to be a year-long art project during which I would record my paths through the city each day. My plan was to take the lines that were created and layer them in GIS, disassociate them from any sort of background and change their colors through the months in order to view only the paths themselves and how they change through time. I made it about 5 days.

The project itself grew out of a fascination with Guy Debord and the Situationists, and most specifically with the idea of psychogeography, the “study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Throughout the 50s and 60s, Debord and the other Situationists made a series of psychogeographic maps, in most cases using the method of the “dérive,” a sort of wandering through space.

Earlier this year, when it came to light that iPhones have been tracking the locations of their users (tracking isn’t exactly true, since they record the locations of the towers that your phone is using, not your triangulated location), I was immediately interested in the availability of this data, not because of worries about privacy (like the census, the data isn’t really fine-grained enough to be used against a person, as far as I can tell), but because I’m fascinated that there is a document of my movements out there. Recently, an app has appeared for Mac users to allow you to download and visualize the data and to create videos of your movement through time. The resulting maps show my movements over the last 3 months or so. Larger circles are towers I bounced off of more, smaller less (and as far as I can tell the colors only correlate to size).

I can’t help but wonder about the potential for planners to use information like this if we were able to collect data across a multitude of users, especially since so much of our data about where people travel to and from is in the form of auto counts or transit boarding, which obviously leave out walking or biking trips (and, in the case of transit, the trips to transit on either end of the counted trip).