Thursday, May 11, 2017

When I first moved to London, in the mid-90s, I hated taking buses. I didn’t know the city well, and it was far too easy to get on the wrong bus, or miss your stop. I would end up sitting by the window, looking out for street names so that I could check where I was in my pocket A-Z. I’d follow my progress in the hope that I was actually on the way to the place I thought I was on my way to, and trying to figure out when to get off to minimise the walk to my destination. That wasn’t so much because I was lazy, but because you never knew how far there would be between bus stops, and there was no way to find out.

The London Underground, you see, was and is unambiguous. You know where it stops, because there’s a diagram in every carriage, so you can track your progress very easily. Also, it stops where it stops and nowhere else. It can’t be sent on diversion. If stations are shut, you tend to be told about it well in advance. And stations don’t get temporarily moved, like bus stops can be.

London buses, they were the very height of ambiguity. Whilst major stops would be listed in the information at the bus stop, there’d often be nothing on the bus itself, or if there was it would again only be major stops. If your stop was a minor stop, you might never see it named in any of the literature. And there was no way of knowing where you were if you didn’t either a) know the area already or b) have a map with you. Bus gone on diversion? Well, now you’ll have to guess how to get to where you’re going. Bus stop closed? Tough. Now you’ll have to walk back, and it might not be a short walk.

I was on a bus today. A bus I’d never been on, through a part of London I didn’t know, to a destination I’ve never been to. In the mid-90s, it would have been hugely stressful to me, but today it was a breeze, and all because I have information.

The bus now tells you which stop is coming up, so if you know the name of your stop you won’t miss it. If you don’t know the name of your stop, you can pull up Google Maps on your phone and watch your progress. All the bus stops are marked and named on Google Maps, so you always know where you’re at, and where you’re going to next.

And sitting on my bus, listening to it call out the names of the next stop in a comforting and reassuring voice, I remembered how much anxiety travelling by bus used to cause me. And I realised how that stress has been washed away by the sensible application of technology. And I thought, how easily we forget how things really used to be back then. How easily we gloss over the sense of security that merely having information gives us, how confident we can feel just because we know where we are. How much better our lives are now, in tiny but meaningful ways like this, than they used to be. How much we take it for granted.

If libraries gave us power, information gives us confidence.

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