Will Technology Undermine “The Knowledge”?

I have ridden in London cabs countless times, but yesterday I had an unprecedented experience. I clambered into a black taxi and told the driver my address. After some blocks he asked, off-handedly, “What is the postcode there, guv?”.

Puzzled by the question, I nonetheless told him the answer. I then furtively leaned forward to see what he was up to. In his hands was a small GPS device with a map, into which he entered my postcode.

Tommyrot! Fiddlesticks! Codswallop! Poppycock! Insert other antiquated Brit swear words here! Is nothing sacred?

Although it is sometimes attributed to an edict by Cromwell, the entry test for London cabbies has Victorian origins. The standard was exacting: Knowledge of every street and landmark within 6 miles of Charing Cross. To acquire “The Knowledge” takes most would-be cabbies a number of years, and is deservedly considered a badge of honour. Neuroscientists have documented that mastering the knowledge even enlarges particular regions of the brain.

But as my driver seems to have concluded, this remarkable feat is increasingly vestigial. If other cabbies follow his lead and give in to the new technology their Knowledge will also atrophy like an unused muscle. Knowing where everything in London is located will become a parlour trick rather than a useful skill.

I can imagine the griping of future pensioners, e.g., “In my day we didn’t have fancy pants computers that told us where everything was…”. But why wait, when I can start griping now? I will be sad if The Knowledge all gets outsourced to Google Maps. In the first place, I admire the hard work of those who master The Knowledge. In the second place, London has some of the best cabbies in the world because to become a taxi driver currently requires intelligence, discipline and very hard work. If future cabbies need only know how to tap a few buttons on a screen, it will lower the standards of a thoroughly admirable profession. And finally, I like saying words like “Tommyrot” and the passing of a great Victorian tradition is as good a reason to do so as any.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.