… the unfashionable argument that expertise cannot be reduced to data

Here’s an article about “The Knowledge,” which is the body of knowledge that London cab drivers need to know: The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS.

It’s astonishing what London black cab drivers have to learn.

It has been called the hardest test, of any kind, in the world. Its rigors have been likened to those required to earn a degree in law or medicine. It is without question a unique intellectual, psychological and physical ordeal, demanding unnumbered thousands of hours of immersive study, as would-be cabbies undertake the task of committing to memory the entirety of London, and demonstrating that mastery through a progressively more difficult sequence of oral examinations – a process which, on average, takes four years to complete, and for some, much longer than that.

[…] Examiners may ask a would-be cabby to identify the location of any restaurant in London. Any pub, any shop, any landmark, no matter how small or obscure – all are fair game. Test-takers have been asked to name the whereabouts of flower stands, of laundromats, of commemorative plaques. One taxi driver told me that he was asked the location of a statue, just a foot tall, depicting two mice sharing a piece of cheese

The problem? GPS is removing the need to learn it, and Uber – which requires no such examination – is threatening to put London cabbies out of business over the long-term. London black cabs are expensive, primarily because there’s such a high barrier to entry to become a driver.

But technology can lower this bar, so why should we preserve the increasingly anachronistic tradition of learning The Knowledge? Here’s a wonderfully elegant argument:

The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. The Knowledge stands for, well, knowledge – for the Enlightenment ideal of encyclopedic learning, for the humanist notion that diligent intellectual endeavor is ennobling, an end in itself. To support the Knowledge is to make the unfashionable argument that expertise cannot be reduced to data, that there’s something dystopian, or at least depressing, about the outsourcing of humanity’s hard-won erudition to gizmos, even to portable handheld gizmos that themselves are miracles of human imagination and ingenuity. London’s taxi driver test enshrines knowledge as – to use the au courant term – an artisanal commodity, a thing that’s local and homespun, thriving ideally in the individual hippocampus, not the digital hivemind.

This brings up difficult questions about whether we, as a species, are becoming stupider because we’re delegating our knowledge to digital information stores. So long as we have access to Google, we’re fine. Or so we think.

God forbid we have to rebuild the world from scratch one day.

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