Musings on the Metro, Matthew Crawford, mediated environments, & etc.

So, I was thinking about your complaints about those new infoscreens on the D.C. Metro subways…

I admit it. My first thought was, wow, just 21 and he’s already grouching about the future <grin>. But your post deserves more contemplation than that!

You mention Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head. That book sure is dense with fascinating and fruitful ideas, isn’t it? It’s really a tour of the entire last 400 years, from Hobbes to Tocqueville, Nietzsche to, I dunno, Mark Zuckerberg? To respond to your post, I wound up listening to the entire audiobook again this weekend – for the third time. (It helped me bike 40.7 miles yesterday and another 41.4 today.)

Crawford’s book really begs for engagement and conversation. I could write a whole parallel chapter of thoughts on each of his chapters, and it would be worth my time, if I only had the time. (Since I can’t do that, I may try to reflect on the only place where his book really fell short for me: finding some practical ways to bring his worldview to the extremely intangible way I make a living… as a writer.)

But, returning to what I think you might’ve gotten from Crawford.

First, there’s the idea that these new electronic maps represent a greater abstraction and mediation of the rider’s experience, which was more direct when riders needed to use physical maps or rely on hard-to-hear conductors’ announcements.

Second, the idea that riders have lost something important as a result. This abstraction disconnects them further from the experience of struggling at first to get where you’re going in a strange city, and authentically “earning” your mastery.

Third, the idea that these screens are an intrusion on the “attentional commons,” a la CNN in airports. The moment an advertisement appears on one of the Metro’s seatback screens, it’ll represent yet another direct appropriation of value from the poor commuter to the corporate “choice architects” who are generating “hyperpalatable stimuli” to distract you in the service of greed.

Your last argument (I’ll call it the “Lemon Nightmare”) is all too plausible and terrifying. The instant I see Don Lemon’s face appear on a seatback in front of me, better believe I’ll be out there organizing the pitchforks and torches! <grin>

The other two arguments — if in fact you’re making them — I’m not so sure about…

Personally, I wasn’t at all bothered by similar screens in the U-Bahns on my recent visits to Vienna and Munich. It’s true they made it easier to get where I was going without royally screwing up.* But I still used the physical maps before I boarded, and there were still sufficient opportunities to get lost.

To me, at least, learning the system still felt difficult enough to be rewarding, without being so hard you’d surrender in frustration. (Ask Robbie. This is precisely the level of difficulty game designers aim for: hard enough to challenge, not hard enough to alienate. Same idea works when you’re designing courseware or training materials.)

As for mediated and abstracted phenomena, even a physical subway map is very much both of these. I once read a fascinating article about how the NYC subway map was redesigned, modernized, and stylized in the early 1970s, making it less physically accurate but way more attractive and easier to use.

Legendary, still-controversial Massimo Vignelli NYC subway map, 1972

Legendary, still-controversial Massimo Vignelli NYC subway map, 1972

(BTW, subway map design is endlessly controversial — especially in NYC with its extremely complex system. But, as seems de rigueur for me, I’m drifting off topic…)

You and Crawford got me thinking about how practically everything we do is abstracted and mediated in important ways. What would it really take to ride the subway completely without abstraction and mediation? Would you have to walk barefoot down the dark tunnels along the railroad ties (somehow avoiding the third rail)? Of course, the subway itself couldn’t exist without the abstractions of the engineering drawings prepared to build it…

I feel a zillion times more connected to my surroundings on a bike than in a car, but even there I’m meeting the earth through rubber and metal, like the motorcycle racers Crawford discusses at length. If I go on a nature hike, even that experience is mediated by the great folks at the NY/NJ Trail Conference who’ve cleared and marked my trail for me.

Everything I’ve ever read has been abstracted into (and mediated by) letters, words, and type. Every idea I’ve ever heard has been abstracted into (and mediated by) language. (In your educational travels, have you come across the long-running debate over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? That language shapes thought, and different languages might shape thought in different ways? If not, you should…)

But I think Crawford draws a sensible distinction. If I understand him right, the mediations and abstractions he dislikes most are those that disconnect people from their environments in qualitatively new ways — for example, the Mercedes driver-assist systems he describes so colorfully. <grin>

I’m not sure your Metro subway screens meet that criteria. Seems to me they’re still delivering the same kinds of abstracted information, just in more convenient, efficient, and usable ways. But what do you think? Do you think they’re more like the Disney Jr. “Handy-Dandy Machine” he talks about? Where you press a button, and technology solves all your physical and interpersonal problems for you, keeping you permanently infantilized?

Handy Dandy Machine, Disney Jr. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (c) Disney

Handy Dandy Machine, Disney Jr. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (c) Disney

On balance (as you suspected), I think you’ve come down with a very mild case of the “it was hard when I was young — it should be hard for you, too” syndrome. Not to worry. Merely a symptom of adulthood. As long as you don’t shout kids off your lawn (if you ever get one), you should be fine.


*If you “royally” screw up in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, are you actually “imperially” screwing up?


1 Comment

  1. Crawford will LOVE this :

    “States generally have regulations against putting moving images on navigation screens, because it could distract drivers and cause a crash.

    “But Audi engineers said that drivers in autonomous cars would stay more alert if engaged with an in-car entertainment system, important if they need to take back control.

    Their solution? Make it legal for drivers to watch movies while the car drives itself.”

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