Complexity surrounds us. Mastering new technology, understanding scientific discoveries, even learning how to play an instrument well. But few things are more fearsome to master than the evil intricacies of the London Underground network, a system of such unending complexity that several of the original Victorian innovators are still looping the Circle Line in their top hat and tails, trying to generate enough centrifugal force to escape.
The system itself was built to master plans. Unfortunately, those master plans resided in the heads, hearts and wallets of a number of individuals, and bore little resemblance to each other. The resulting tangle of tubes, deep lines, tunnels, cuts and escalators circle and transect the city like a spiders web on acid. Some lines are grand: Art Deco wrought iron fixtures and echoing hallways, others squalid, modernist or just plain odd.
There are few straight lines on the Tube: your journey usually starts with a crowded ticket hall and scramble through the gates, followed by a sinking feeling as you mount the escalator that pulls you inexorably into the depths. There are exceptions: Covent Garden has no escalator. Instead, your choice is a mass transit lift or around four hundred steps. I often opt for the spiral staircase, on the basis that the vertigo and dizziness is a small price to pay to avoid the crowding.
Once in the subterranean vaults, you continue via curving corridors, steps, shafts and platforms to mount the train.
Trains emerge with regularity from the black maw and a familiar sense of dread descends as you note the already packed carriages, cramped with commuters wedged at unlikely angles and unwelcome personal proximity.
And all of this supposes that you’ve worked out where to go: the map of the Tube, with over four hundred stations and multiple multi coloured lines is a triumph of spatial engineering and abstract art combined.
Yesterday though, i was triumphant.
As i swept up the stairs, heading for the light, an elderly gentleman approached and asked me how to get to Northwood. Clutching the unfolded acres of the Tube map, we gestured faintly at the North West quadrant with an imploring look in his eyes.
My moment had come.
Regular London travellers and inhabitants have an almost magical ability to navigate and share directions. I don’t. But i do have an App.
Fifteen seconds later, “Northern line, down there, don’t change, you’ll be there in twenty minutes” i confidently asserted.
Could i trace the route on the map? No.
Was any skill involved? No.
This is how mobile technology should be used, how learning should be designed: fast, effortless, founded upon knowledge, creating meaning. And sharing it.