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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “Will Technology Undermine “The Knowledge”?”

  1. The big thing to me would be knowing the traffic patterns, by day, hour and even (e.g., construction, sporting events, etc.).

    1. This is what concerns me. You only have to look to the ACM Risks Forum or any other source of GPS-based disasters to recognize that Something Bad will likely come of losing The Knowledge. And given the small number of map suppliers, some places will probably become undistricts entirely.

  2. The law requiring London taxicabs to carry a bale of hay – a legacy of the horse-drawn hackney carriage – was apparently only repealed in 1976. The Knowledge is similarly obsolete, and I don’t think its passing will be a shame, however much tearing of hair and rending of garments its passing may produce. A description of how the test is administered and what is expected of the test takers (such as the Radio 4 program Stephen Fry did last year) makes it quite clear that it already amounts to an absurdly overdone exercise containing no small amount of bullying that serves largely to protect the status of a guild.

    One assumes that in any case the growing penetration of smartphones will mean a need to reconsider the entire system of taxicabs, which at present distinguishes between Black Cabs licensed to pick up people hailing them on the street and ubiquitous so-called “minicabs” that can only make pre-arranged pickups. Once the hails of pedestrians are replaced with rapid, location-coupled telephonic summons, the minicab becomes equivalent to the Black Cab – and its driver is already not required to pass the Knowledge.

    1. the difference is that “the knowledge” also gives a cabby the ability to discuss the landmarks from famous to obscure with visitors from out of town. the depth of information the cabbies i’ve had in london and the way that knowledge both entertained and educated me makes me loath to see a change. at a minimum, i’d want an easily understood symbol distinguishing cabbies with and without “the knowledge.”

      1. An excellent point – although the cabby is not required, trained (they may be required to know where things are, but maybe not the salient historical trivia, let alone the proper delivery), or necessarily compensated to serve as your tour operator. I suspect you could find a genuine tour operator to drive you around, quite possibly in an authentic black cab.

    2. Warren, you must be a lawyer, given how perfectly you describe the bar exam. I will be stealing your gemlike phrase for sure.

      1. Not remotely a lawyer – and I doubt that the taking of the Bar Exam includes some of the theatrical aspects of the Knowledge. As to the intrinsic merits of the Bar Exam, I wouldn’t know.

  3. A far more common problem with a similar cause is the child’s complaint “why must I learn the multiplication table when I’ll always have a calculator?” I’d also like Keith’s take on the medical student’s complaint “why must I learn all this anatomy (etc)?” The answer “you may be stuck one day in Antarctica without your universal communicator” is less and less convincing. Here’s an Antarctica coverage map.

    1. About multiplication tables: I’d say it’s because basic arithmetic is an everyday skill and being able to do it in your head is faster than getting out a calculator, keeps your hands free (such as when you’re behind the steering wheel of a car or shopping for groceries), and doesn’t require you to carry a pocket calculator everywhere. These days, smartphones may obviate the need for a pocket calculator, but they’re, as far as I know (I don’t have one), even more cumbersome to use.

      I can’t speak to the need of knowing anatomy by heart for members of the medical profession, but at least in my line of work (computer science) there is some rote knowledge that you simply need to have so that it doesn’t slow down everything you do. Being a reasonably fast typist is one example (unless you’re doing purely theoretical work with no programming at all) [1]. I would guess that having to look up anatomical details in a book while doing surgery might be as impractical as doing hunt-and-peck typing while programming.

      This is different from “The Knowledge” insofar as the location of a street only needs to be looked up once for a trip (assuming reasonable familiarity with the area otherwise). Other rote skills may have to be exercised more continuously.

      [1] Interestingly enough, many European computer scientists either use US keyboards or (if they’re touch typists) national keyboards with a US layout. The reason is that many common symbols used in programming (especially angular brackets and curly braces) are rather inaccessible on national European keyboard layouts. I have heard that this is also a reason why programming languages with a European pedigree are less likely to require braces and brackets in their notation.

    2. The “why must I learn multiplication tables” is a common question. The answer I give: I’ve never met anyone who didn’t know their times tables who was actually good at math. Sure, they could maybe struggle their way through high school, or even one or two calc classes. In my experience, however, people with a true grasp of the fundamentals of math and an intuitive grasp of the way math works all know their arithmetic without even having to think about it.

      I don’t know whether this is causation or correlation, but in my experience it’s universally true. I would imagine it applies to various other fields, as well: a lot of basic knowledge is a necessary foundation for higher-order skills.

      The Knowledge may or may not be an example of this; my money says “not”.

  4. “The knowledge” is way over rated based on my own experience with London cab drivers recently.

    I hopped into a cab in Chelsea and asked to go to the Old Ship Pub on the Thames in Hammersmith. The Old Ship is rather well-known. http://www.oldshipw6.com/ The cabbie didn’t have a clue. He called the dispatcher for help and didn’t get much there. Finally drove to Hammersmith and asked a cop and then left us in the general vicinity tell us its “down there toward the river.” This was not twelve pounds well-spent. We walked back along the Thames toward Chelsea wonderful, historic walk with several historic waterfront pubs on the way and the option to join (or drink at) several boating clubs.

    At the time I wondered why the cab didn’t have a GPS system–the answer I reached was that since with GPS anyone could find their way around London it was a threat to the high London cab fares and the cabbies Guild.

    By the way, the Old Ship is a great place to visit for brunch on Sunday. Be sure to call ahead to reserve a table by the river. They write your name on a napkin and put it on the reserved table. You will feel very English when you see your name between the tables reserved for Sir William and Lord Mark.

  5. A black cabbie in London saved my wife from being hopelessly lost on her own by getting her home with minimal knowledge from her of where we were staying. The Knowledge is a fine thing.

  6. “..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…” This is sort of like requiring a Princeton degree to be an investment banker or a doctor, or a pharmacy degree to count pills and dispense them. Classes up the joint, but excludes a lot of people who could have done a perfectly adequate job. Or – redefines the job away from ‘get me where I’m going’ to ‘be part of local color, and make my passengers feel elevated’ – which is okay, but maybe those guys should be tour guides.

  7. Another side of GPS effect – perhaps unimportant to others – is you don’t experience accidental discoveries. “I wonder where this road goes”, followed by interesting experiences as you wend your way back to the intended destination. I like to travel GPS-free, with a only a map; the difference is between travel and transport.

  8. Humphreys, your cabbie story is genius!

    It is an allegory for our times, as your lament about cabbies is present in all fields these days. Merely one example: Seventh grade students are questioning my daughter, their Spanish teacher, as to why they must study the language when they have a translation app on their smart phones.

    Pursuing the “knowledge” may just become silly nostalgia in a few years!

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