GPS vs. reading your city

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The rise of ubiquitous GPS and other navigation technology has made us passive commuters rather than active boulevardiers. We no longer feel the need to 'read' a city since our smartphone can tell us where to turn.

I once took an auto-rickshaw ride in Chennai with a driver who was new to the city and didn't know the route to the destination. Throughout the journey, he navigated entirely through oral directions from passers-by and neighbouring vehicles at every junction. He would get three or four instructions at a time — turn right, ride straight on till a movie theatre appears on the right, take the road alongside the theatre. He proceeded with these instructions until he reached his next informant.

After 20 minutes, quick directions from around six passers-by and, miraculously, not a single wrong turn, we reached our destination.

Navigating in India has always been more than getting from point A to B, more about oral directions more than maps and signages. Directions which come with their unique set of quirks and local knowledge — a 'roundtaanaa' in Chennai is a Circle in Bangalore, a 'dead end' means a T-junction, the colour of a house is usually more important than the door number (which would have an old version and a new version).

How does the GPS-revolution and ubiquitous technology fit into this system of informal landmarks and asking the passerby which bus to take?

 

There is something unsettling about outsourcing the use-it-or-lose-it skill of navigation to a device, and running the risk of getting lost with a drained cell phone battery and no sense of direction.

Mobile phones began changing the way we move even without GPS — when the bus-ride experience transitioned from looking-out-the-window-or-at-people to playing-Candy-Crush-Saga-oblivious-to-the-crowds-and-location-of-the-bus, when walks in the neighbourhood started involving talking on the phone to a friend across the city rather than a next-door neighbour. “It turns the boulevardier into a sequestered individual, the flaneur into a figure of privacy. And suddenly the meaning of the street as a public place has been hugely diminished,” wrote architectural critic Paul Goldberger about mobile phones in his piece ‘Disconnected Urbanism’, about how a place no longer has an all-consuming effect as you are never really cut off from other places anymore.

With increasing dependence on GPS, the experience of moving and navigating in the city has further changed — in a classic urban design text, The Image of the City, architect and urban planner Kevin Lynch explored how different parts of the city are recognised and organised by people into coherent patterns, forming paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. Landmarks prove to be a very important feature of legibility, which get reinforced as the journey becomes more familiar, helping people form a sense of place, a memory, a sub-conscious absorption of the way you get from point A to point B.

 

The landmarks may be inconsequential — a crowd of people around a tea-shop mark a point in your journey, or even the smell or sounds of a certain place help orientation and navigation. In cities where Internet penetration and mapping is still low, these forms of casual landmarks are often more important in navigation, a fact that was recognised by Google when they did a study to implement Google Maps in India.

“Google Maps would say: ‘Head southeast for 0.2 miles.’ A person would say: ‘Start walking away from the McDonald’s,” they report in the official blog, after running a research study on visual cues and wayfinding by calling people and asking for directions, and finding that landmarks were easier to see and remember than street names, which are often hidden in visual noise. The final design was thus tweaked to give more prominence to landmarks or buildings along routes because people often wanted to compare and confirm where they really are.

This persistence of landmarks and oral directions is not just about low internet penetration and refusal to move with the pace of technology. It is a reflection of the way people continue to interact with the vast part of the city’s urbanscape that is still unmapped but still a vivid, important part of the city’s daily rhythms. Although many urban middle-class Indians may have had their life made easier by being able to share their location after calling an Uber or following American-accented GPS instructions while driving in a new route, the city is much more complex than what the maps offer — ‘tea kadais’ and roadside hotels; street-hawkers selling coconut water or kitchen utensils, unnamed alleys and informal settlements; the vegetable-vendor who transforms into a kolam-vendor during festivals; the electronics shop that repairs even pen-drives.

 

Streets that are named and numbered are often unpredictable — a 2nd Cross may have a 4th Cross after it, and the 3rd Cross may be sitting four lanes away. So, that broken wall or small temple under a tree becomes important to distinguish one street from another. Dual street names add to the mystery — the auto driver may tell you he is turning on Oliver Road when the board says Musuri Subramaniam Road. The collective memory of people who are used to the older colonial names hasn't yet disappeared, making Mount Road very difficult to replace mentally with Anna Salai.

In this casual and intangible way, the past constantly interacts with the present, and landmarks that have long ceased to exist are still important navigation cues — I was once told off by an auto-driver for trying to explain my destination in Adyar as a ‘large car showroom on LB Road’ rather than to just say ‘Eros Theatre’ — this single-screen cinema hall has long vanished from the city’s urban fabric, but collective memory is too strong to vanish as easily.

The commuters of today who still fondly refer to old street names are likely to eventually be replaced by a GPS-savvy generation that prefers strictly defined, organised codifications and being rigidly told where to go, when to turn and which route is the best. But there is something unsettling about outsourcing the use-it-or-lose-it skill of navigation to a device, and running the risk of getting lost with a drained cell phone battery and no sense of direction.

Where ubiquitous technology will change the imagination and experience of the city is in the gradual erosion of undocumented local knowledge by a rigid system that reduces our capacity to remember routes, notice landmarks and recognise districts because we no longer have a reason to ‘read’ the city, no reason to look out of the window to recognise where to get off the bus because your phone can tell you when to.

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