Name: wilfried hou je bek

Algorithmic Psychogeography

The generic principle applied to the city walk19th Century opium eater Thomas de Quincey remains the first reported case &
indeed the prototype of the obsessive drifter. With no other goal in mind than to satisfy his curiosity about what might be discovered around the next corner, De Quincey spent entire days randomly strolling around London. In the 20th century, the surrealists in the 30ties & the Lettrists in the 50ties elaborated on this urge by transforming it into a systematic practice. In the 60ties the Situationists took this activity to the next level by developing psychogeography: the science of the dérive, the drift. These dérives were not random, but persuaded the psychogeographer to use his or her imagination to experience the urban surroundings in a new way. Methods they adopted for this were for instance to literally followed their nose by chasing smells or navigating through Paris on a map of London. What drove the situationists to the streets can hardly be called curiosity - political & theoretical motivations were the key forces.

From the 70ties onwards psychogeography kept attracting people but more as an academic bon mot & seldom as something to actually DO. But the curiosity to discover all aspects of the city didn't stop here. It reappeared under the moniker of Urban Exploration. A world wide discipline & an enthusiastic international network of people who spent their free time by "going places where you are not supposed to go". A search on Google opens up this spectrum with dozens of well documented sites. Perhaps the only limitation in the scope of this phenomena is the strong tendency towards sensation seeking, making most activities dangerous &/or illegal. The exploration of public space has often been overlooked as too obvious.

It is that which Social Fiction sets out to do with a Psychogeography project of our own. After some initial experiments with the situationist methods, we soon grew dissatisfied with them because we didn't succeed in completely opening up the city. For example, in our first experiment we went around with 2 groups in the newly built town Leidsche Rijn (in the armpit of Utrecht, Holland). Both groups were provided with a map of Rome & left in different directions with the agreement to meet again half an hour later on the south bank of Ponte Garibaldi. Even though we had a pleasant afternoon we felt that this way of manoeuvring was too strongly influenced by the limits of personal tastes, expectations & biases. What we needed was an objective method which gave us the opportunity to stroll around town free of prejudices because we suspected that the psychogeographical effects would be stronger if the route was as clear as possible. We wanted to stroll around in a way that resembled John Cage's dictum that he gave his musicians 'directions but no map'.

Having established all this, our attention was soon focused towards John Conway's 'Game of Life' in which we found the clue we were looking for. The power of the Game of Life is that no matter how simple the rules are, one cannot predict what will happen to a colony in any given situation, neither for the immediate nor for the distant future. The only way to find out what will happen is to execute the program. In this vein we devised a set of rules which carves out an endless route through the city which, we hoped, would not be predictable & which keeps the psychogeographical pedestrian wondering where the logic of the stroll-algorithm will take him/her.

In the summer of 2001 we have undertaken 3 experiments to test our assumptions.
The directions we gave to the participants were all variations on this kind of
2nd right
2nd right
1st left repeat.

The experiments we will undertake in the summer of 2002, already dubbed 'The Hot Summer of Psychogeography' will result in more detailed insights in the inner workings on the behaviour of our algorithm. At this stage we will present some first observations & suggestions to improve our method. The success of these experiments is dependent on 3 different variables.

1) The ability of the directions to enslave the participant; to create the desire to find out where this all 'will lead to'.

2) The real unexpected 'new-ness'  of the stroll

3) The actual enhancement of the agents cognitive map with new images & experiences of the city. The first & second facilitates the third.

The actual psychological effects of these strolls are difficult to measure. We propose to develop an objective test to calculate subjective results by giving the stroll a more game-like character. The agent could submit scores to specific sites according to the psychogeographical effects it invokes. These scores can be added up to make for a high-score, thus determining which route out of many is the most powerful. The cross reference of all experiments might tell which specific places have a strong influence on the average agent.

Up until now we have only informally discussed the experiences afterwards. It soon turned out that the rules worked like we expected them to. When an agent is convinced of his knowledge of the city, the contrary is soon proved. A generic stroll is a constant surprise. It is unpredictable where the logic of the direction will push the agent to next, not just for the next half hour but for the 4th next turn as well. Like in the Game of life, the smallest change leads to entirely different routes. When strolling on a 2nd right, 2nd right, 1st left
algorithm, 33 generations might bring you to point A. When a second agent executes the same algorithm but encounters a street that the first agent could pass but has now been blocked, the resulting journey will end up kilometres away. Comparing of routes has also proven that every minor change in the directions (say the change from 3rd left to right) has an enormous impact on the
agents route.

The often heard first reaction on our algorithm is that it won't bring us very far because our stroll will end up in a loop. A second thought is often sufficient to eliminate this idea: as long as you are not walking in one of those rare pure symmetrical cities this won't happen very often. Until now it has only happened once in approximately 30 strolls that someone got trapped in a loop. This didn't happen immediately but after an hour, so in rare urban constellations it does occur. Another thing that might stop the stroll prematurely is a dead end. We argue that this should be seen as a worthwhile result. Under no circumstances should the agent resume his or her stroll by just breaking the deadlock & continue executing it in a randomly chosen direction. However, in reality the
agent doesn't want to spoil his/her afternoon & goes on in some arbitrary way.

A more dubious problem is the vagueness about what exactly is the next 'right' turn & whether something is a turn at all. Especially in squares, parks & complex traffic flyover this often is a debatable issue. Until now we have always told the agents that, when faced with ambiguity about which turn to take next, they should resume the algorithm as reasonably as possible. This is not the best solution we can think of. One of the strongest points of our directions is, that if repeated under the same circumstances the same route should emerge, subjective factors will harm this quality. On the other hand we feel a certain hesitation to modify our set of rules if this hurts the elegance of its present simplicity. The best solution for this is yet to be found.

Another essential part of the generic principle we have to address in our 2002 experiments is the factor of interplay between different agents. In most generic situations, the agents proceed in their specific way by reacting to changes in the environment. In the game of Life for instance, the surroundings of the agents are other agents who also obey the same rules. In our experiments the agents behave according to simple rules in a surrounding which is subject to its own rules. Occasionally different groups of psychogeographers run into each other. Should this influence their stroll or should they just say hello & resume their separate ways? We tend to think that the environment provides enough complexity to the game, but perhaps an extra rule that regulates the interplay of agents may add to the flavour. We have also considered a stroll without any directions other than interplay between participants, applying the principle behind the birds or boids swarm to the city survey. This might actually be great fun, but for now we restrain
from this method out of the consideration that this probably doesn't s help our real purpose: the exploration of public space. Besides, people might just be too stupid (or too smart?) to follow 3 simple rules which regulate personal behaviour on the behaviour of others. We are not interested in giggling.

Finally some words on the patterns that emerge when executing the algorithm. Even though closed loops do seldom occur, half loops & spirals do happen quite often. Especially spirals tend to emerge with some regularity & that is a wonderful thing. Spiralling means that you are strolling around the same streets generation after generation without ever making the same combination of
streets twice. This pattern offers great psychogeographical effects because in this way a certain, 'objectively' chosen area (note: not subjectively as the situationists chose their areas) can be mapped & experienced thoroughly. After a while the route suddenly pushes you into another directions, perhaps your route then prescribes an tenfold of turns, if luck will have it, you have to cross
large bridges, or you have to wait a long time for the next turn in some endless straight street, making you cross large distances. What also might happen with some probability is that you'll walk half loops, which if you look back at the map afterwards are only small deviations from a large loop. Future explorations will show what patterns emerge with what predictably.

Furthermore we look forward to testing our method in areas with a different structure than the ones we've tried. Perhaps the psychogeographical effects differ widely when applied in the grandiose setting of Berlins Unter dem Linden. We are also looking forward to give it a try in the centre of Italian Cities like Venice & especially in Sienna with it's peculiar structure. Contact us for more information at