Monday, October 31, 2011

Communicating via Roly Poly: The Remote Possibility of Touch

MoMA's latest offering, "Talk to Me", explores the recent movements in the design of human interaction with man-made objects. In recent years, design disciplines have taken a new angle on the old themes of form, function, and meaning. Recently there has been a movement to integrate these with even more intimate and ambitious forms of communication including ideas of dialogue, connection, and even emotion. One object on display at the MoMA exhibit that struck me as particularly evocative was the Roly Poly, from the Design Incubation Center in Singapore.

From the Design Incubation Center website:

Roly Poly is designed to enable two individuals to “sense” the presence of each other even though they may be physically apart. The mirrored movements in a pair of Roly Polys is such that a soft tap to rock one will simultaneously rock its partner to the same degree, creating a corresponding reaction in the other instantly. While the Internet provides a vast array of text messaging and video calling interaction options, Roly Poly offers a unique, spontaneous and subtle mode of instant communication, exclusive between two individuals.

There is no doubt that the explosion of Internet and wireless technologies has enabled the emergence of a variety of new forms of interpersonal communication. Like so many new technologies, what has once been considered a novelty is now an essential utility, like water or electricity. Today, texting, facebook, email, and photosharing are deeply integrated in our lives. Each new medium is accompanied by its own unique logic of expression. And yet, the expressive power of these media is in some ways constrained, and in other ways enabled by the affordances of each particular system. The entire ecosystem of Twitter, for example, is defined in 140 character snippets. Such a microform, we have found, far from being a painful restriction, has facilitated vast networks of communication. 

However, these forms of communication just mentioned are based on 19th and 20th century metaphors of communication: the typewriter, the cable telegram, the photograph. These paradigms of communication are ones that we are extremely comfortable with, and function well in our lives. But the potential to access other, less traditional, forms of personal interconnection through digital technology has hardly been explored. The Roly Poly represents just such a shift away from traditional forms of symbolic communication towards haptic forms of expression. There is something beautifully intuitive, nuanced and yet simple and ambiguous about the Roly Poly. Like the Ouija board used in seances to communicate with the dead, the Roly Poly allows for the externalization of one of the most neglected of human senses: the proprioceptive sense, that is, the sense of orientation, of movement. 

This proprioceptive sense, perhaps more than any other, has proven the least abstractable. This at least in part accounts for its neglect by contemporary communications technology. It is also perhaps the most intimate, the most context specific, and yet, paradoxically the most universal. The message of touch is a challenge to define abstractly, but is easily recognized. The possibilities for communication touched upon by the Roly Poly opens up a world of questions about the future of human communication as well. As our daily personal experiences become increasingly subsumed by the remoteness of digital communications, how will we adapt the basic human wiring for haptic communication (that is, for touch) to an inherently sterile and abstracted medium? Is such a simple gesture easily interpreted between people? between cultures? And how does the distance that separates us when we use the Internet to communicate affect the shared knowledge of meaning on which such an intimate medium as touch relies?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Crosstown Traffic meets The Land of Confusion - The Colour-Coding of the New York Subway System

Ever missed a date in Constantinople, because she was waiting in Istanbul? Yeah, me neither. But I’ve been living in New New Amsterdam for just a couple of months and I already had a misunderstanding due to failed reading of the Subway system nomenclature. Some friends of mine were visiting the city and wanted to see the university campus. I gave them proper directions from the place they were staying in Flushing to Columbia with the subway with only one transfer at Times Square. The plan was foolproof as the 116-Columbia station has only one exit and I was waiting just outside of it. It was easy, it was perfect. And then I got the call from 116th and Lenox Ave…where the 2-train stops, some seven avenues away. Everybody who has used the New York Subway at least a few times by now knows that they got confused by the colour-coding and took the other Red line, which does not go to Columbia. You have no idea how many times I said “the 1-train” in my directions and how many times I refused to answer the question “so which colour is that?”…
The obvious reason for the confusion is that the couple that visited me was from Chicago where the ‘L’ only has colour-coding as opposed to the NYC Subway which has a triple coding system of colour, line and service. While colour is obvious, the other two terms might be confusing even to locals. “Service” refers to the letter or number, which is the most commonly used every day name for a train and then “line” refers to the physical tracks that the trains run on, which both have historic background. Up to 1940 there were three companies (two private and one municipal) that operated the Subway – Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT), Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and Independent City-Owned Subway System (IND). They are all now parts of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), but they are still recognized by its structure. The IRT alone constitutes the MTA’s A-Division and its services are assigned numbers. The B-Division consists of the former BMT and IND and its services are assigned letters. So any given train receives a three-fold code, for example the one that goes to Columbia University would be IRT Broadway-7th Ave Line Tomato Red 1-train.

Here are some examples of remnants of the three former companies :
BMT Subway
IND Subway 14th St
IRT 191st St
CTA 'L' Map
The history of the subway system in New York as well as its structure made it all so complicated. To use the Chicago example, every line has its own tracks and theonly stations with multiple lines are in the down town area around the Loop, where all lines stop. However, the history of the rapid transit system in Chicago is not much different with the major change coming in 1940 as well. So why can Chicago switch to simple colour-coding and New York cannot? Another question spring out of that, though – how simple would such a system really be in NYC? One could argue that such a system is already in place since people most readily recognise the colour-coding. Currently, though colour is assigned in correspondence to the line the service runs on in Midtown Manhattan. For one, this shows zonal rankings within the city with Midtown apparently being the most important one. Another possible meaning that could be derived is that Midtown is supposed to be the main tourist centre as local would most probably know the system better and would not simply rely on colour-coding. I bet Battery Park City, SoHo and the Financial District would have something to say about such distribution of tourists…
MTA Subway Map
Many interesting inference could be made about the meaning behind the choice of colour-coding, but it is not only culturally and socially, but also practically problematic. What would happen to tourists who decide to wander outside of the realm of Midtown? What people who live in the city but are new to the area? For example, I know people wondering why the E-service is coded Vivid Blue and paired with A and C-services. It only shares eight stations with the C and five with the express A. On the other hand the E-service shares six stations with the Bright Orange M-service. Orange colour seems even more appropriate when considering that the E-service runs together with the F-service from Jamaica to Long Island City and they share five stations when running express during the day and thirteen stations when running local at night. So how confusing could it be for someone from Chicago or Washington, DC or Prague, for example, where only colour-coding is applied, to recognise the A and E-services as the same line? How confusing is that for someone who lives in Jackson Heights and to whom the F and E-services are virtually the same, but are different in colour?
Future 2nd Ave Line
So it is confusing, but so what? Maybe it is more important for the city to preserve its historic association with the BMT, IRT, and IND, whose ownership of the Midtown tracks before 1940 determines the colour-coding of the whole transit system in four of the five boroughs. Maybe the MTA does not believe that colour is all that important and that letters and numbers are more appropriate labels. Maybe the colours are just an extra that the MTA throws out of generosity. Buy one get two free kind of situation. Maybe the diversity of New York is once again represented in the subway nomenclature as it uses this three-fold designation system. Well, maybe. But what about the planned 2nd Ave line? It will not run on any of the three historic companies lines in Midtown so how can it be assigned a colour? Or a number or letter for that matter? The 2nd Ave line is tentatively dubbed T in teal and is supposed to open in 2016. It would run from Hanover St along 2nd Ave up to 116th St and would then end at 125th and Lexington Ave where transfer would be available to the 4-5-6 IRT Lexington Ave Apple Green lines. A redirection of the BMT Broadway Sunflower Yellow Q-service from 59th St to 63rd St and then onto 2nd Ave would provide a double service on the new line. I guess the BMT connection with the Q-service is where the T-service gets its letter association. But where does the colour come from? Is it a combination of the 4-5-6 apple green and the Q sunflower yellow or is it just completely random? I assume everyone is free to making his own reading of it.
What the MTA Subway system shows is how colour-coding could be read in a variety of ways. The reading presented here is perhaps the one that the MTA was looking for, but there are so many others. The 1-2-3 and 4-5-6services run almost parallel in Manhattan on the two opposite sides of Central Park and are assigned the two opposite colours of a traffic light – red and green. However, the 2 and 5-service run along the same tracks for a substantial length in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, too, which makes the opposing lines reading obsolete. The L-service could be read as tied to the Shuttle services.I have heard tourists regularly referring to the “S-train”, which a local would probably never say. The MTA makes the distinction between Light Slate Grey L-service and Dark Slate Grey Shuttles, but I am sure many people think they somehow need to be connected due to the proximity of their colours. Yet the L-service does not share a single station with any of the Shuttles. Colour is also recognized differently by different people so some might view the Lime Green G to be closely connected to the Apple Green 4-5-6, while other would-think they are just as different as any other two line and colours. Some would see the M-service (newly Bright Orange) running along with its former colour-mates Terra Cotta Brown J and Z-services for some six stations as logical because of the proximity of the colours, while other might think otherwise. I am not even going to dare discussing colour-blindness and how it could affect reading the subway nomenclature. At any rate, the subway system isquite a fascinating case of how colour-coding could be read in a variety of ways producing both justification for the MTA arrangement and confusion and drawing on history, visual perception, track length, number of stations shared and many other categories.