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December, 2014

The Knowledge, Cabbies, and Nostalgia

The struggle between nostalgia and technology, illustrated by the conflict between London cabbies and Uber.
While I'm definitely not a techno-utopian, I'm also not a big fan of nostalgia. Nostalgia, it turns out, doesn't work all that well: Over time our brain acts like a game of telephone, memories become memories of memories, and we tend to gloss over the details that surround occasions for the big moments. This idea obviously extends to technology and progress, where often the world pushes back on new ideas because the old way had a certain glamour to it. Ultimately, we all can decide how we want to operate, and fear of change is a person's right, but great progress doesn't come without disrupting "comfortable" norms (this is true in technology, politics, and culture -- see: email, the Civil Rights Act, and gay marriage to name a few). One of the areas we're seeing this fight over nostalgia is with Uber and London cabbies. The famous London black cabs protested en masse over the summer and have voiced strong opposition to the service that democratizes the ability to pick up passengers and drop them off at their destination. (Quick side note: Uber has taken lots of heat lately for their behavior. My points here are about the service and the idea, not a defense of the company itself.) London cab-drivers are famous for their incredible knowledge of one of the most complicated cities on earth. Unlike New York where all you need to get a taxi medallion is a million dollars, in London you need to pass a seemingly impossible test that asks you to memorize "all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken." (That's from the official London taxi guidebook.) Of course, if I were to describe Google Maps that way you wouldn't be particularly surprised. Technology is great at holding a database of locations. In fact, that's probably just about the most simple thing Google Maps does, after all it's just a lat-long point and a name (ideally connected to a website for more information like open and close times, menu, etc.). The challenge for Google (and the cab-drivers) is in the routes: Getting from point a to point b isn't all that hard a problem for either, but getting there in the "best way" is nearly impossible. That, ultimately, is what the London taxi drivers study and what the Google engineers constantly refine (buying Waze is quite clearly a push in that direction as "best" could easily be defined as least traffic). It's also one of the places where you could argue humans can still outperform machines (for a lot of the same reasons people are still better than machines at certain parts of chess). Anyway, I'm writing all this because for all my issues with nostalgia, I really enjoyed the New York Times piece on "The Knowledge," the test every licensed black cab driver in London must take. Here's a little snippet:
It is tempting to interpret the Knowledge as a uniquely British institution: an expression of the national passion for order and competence, and a democratization of what P. G. Wodehouse winkingly called the feudal spirit, putting an army of hyperefficient Jeeveses on the road, ready to be flagged down by any passing Bertie Wooster. But the Knowledge is less a product of the English character than of the torturous London landscape. To be in London is, at least half the time, to have no idea where the hell you are. Every London journey, even the most banal, holds the threat of taking an epic turn: The guy headed to the corner newsagent makes a left where he should have gone right, blunders into an unfamiliar road, and suddenly he is Odysseus adrift on the Acheron. The problem is one of both enormity and density. From the time that London first began to spread beyond the walls surrounding the Roman city, it kept sprawling outward, absorbing villages, enlarging the spider-web snarl of little roads, multiplying the maze. Take a look sometime at a London street map. What a mess: It is a preposterously complex tangle of veins and capillaries, the cardiovascular system of a monster.
The article argues, and I agree, there's a benefit to this vast knowledge and if you need to get somewhere complicated in London very quickly, it's hard to beat hopping into a black cab. However, the technology is catching, and will continue to do so, and that's fine too.
December 3, 2014
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.