There are certain idiosyncrasies native to New York City to which you can only become accustomed if you’ve lived here a long time, but which—once you’re familiar with them—allow you a sense of ownership over this city, one that feels truly earned. Some of these things include knowing which avenues in Manhattan travel north and which travel south (evens go up, odds go down), which side of the street odd or even building numbers are on (odds are on the north and evens are on the south, at least, this is the case on the west side of Manhattan), and which end of the subway to get on so that you’re near the exit you’ll need when you get off. Another telltale sign that New York is not just any city but that it is your city is the ability to exit a subway station without any hesitation, confident in your ability to choose the proper staircase for you ascent, the one which will deposit you closest to your ultimate destination. This is the kind of hard-won knowledge which designates the true New Yorker from the newbie, the New Yorker who is of this city rather than just in it. But like everything else in this city lately, this simple fact of city life is on the verge of being destroyed.
Mashable reported yesterday on the work of Rhode Island School of Design student Ryan Murphy who, writer Brian Koerber claims, has “devised a simple and effective way to inform passengers exactly what street and which direction they’ll be heading, without the need for extensive construction or difficult installation.” Murphy has designed a project which he calls “Hacking the Subway” that consists of “two small signs located on the vertical section of the subway’s exit stairs to allow people to see the direction they’re heading, and useful street information. Currently the subway exit signs only include cross streets and directional corner.” Murphy told Mashable that he came up with this project idea based on the idea that “though the [subway] system works well once you have a hang of it, there are still moments of disorientation for even the most seasoned New Yorker.”
But, well, so what? Is there anything inherently wrong, or begging to be fixed, about the fact that sometimes even seasoned New Yorkers are a little bit disoriented once in a while? Similar to the terrible idea of transfer signs in the subway, which only lead to needlessly cluttering an already overcrowded system, Murphy’s subway hack only serves to take any sort of agency away from the commuter and risks turning the average subway rider into a kind of witless wonder, the sort of person who can’t find their way around any part of non-gridded New York if they happen to be without a smartphone. Is this really what we want to become? A city full of residents who have no greater understanding of New York’s geography than do the tourists? No! A million times no.
The problem with hacks like these aren’t just that they’re only marginally helpful (as commuters pointed out to Mashable, the signs’ location will make them “difficult to read on a packed stairwell”), but it is that they defeat what ought to be the purpose of a hack, which is in its essence means to utilize ingenuity for the purpose of gaming a system. But even beyond the fact that a few questionably placed directional signs are hardly ingenious, there remains the fact that the only system being gamed here is, basically, you. If you start to rely on signs like these or those transfer signs or even on Google Maps too much, you risk losing any sense of where you are in the world, and any ability to find out on your own. These signs make us stupid. They slow us down. (Can you even imagine the stairwell jams that will be caused by commuters abruptly stopping to see if they are, indeed, heading east toward 3rd Avenue?) These signs privilege the type of people who can’t handle not knowing where they’re going for even five seconds of their lives, people who can’t appreciate the fact that sometimes the only way to know where you’re going is to feel lost for a second first. This city is full enough of people like that, impatient people who rely on Uber to get everywhere and have no idea how to travel from neighborhood to neighborhood, let alone from borough to borough, and there’s really no reason to coddle these types any more than we already have. Otherwise they’ll never learn. Or, you know, leave.
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