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Posted by on Dec 21, 2011

Tokyo and elevated trains: the role of perspective and engagement/detachment in learning

This is not a fully formed thought here, but a recent visit to Tokyo (as in returning last night) had me thinking a bit about urban cityscapes, perspective, and learning. Particularly, learning of the spatial sensemaking variety. The trip was great fun, seeing some old friends, enjoying good food, long walks, and great Tokyo backdrops as set pieces. 

I should say that I am used to subways in sunken places. As subterranean encounters that are designed, accidentally, to thrust gazes upon one another, to inspect social interactions with strangers, to learn what we do with enclosed spaces. The subways I refer to here primarily are the ones in New York City and Seoul. Tokyo’s subway is primarily underground as well, but it does peek its head out a bit more (much more, at least the limited stretches I was riding) it seems that its counterparts in Seoul and New York City. When it does emerge from its underground tunnels, it becomes an elevated train.

Immediately what was once a case study in learning about the social interactions of enclosed, dense spaces becomes an expansive learning experience. The gaze immediately renders away from contraction (and space) and towards structure (the city as focus of observation). Being elevated affords a perch to gaze down upon, almost as if the city had become a real-life Civilization game (minus the omni-powerful persistence of the gamer). One can gaze on the structure of the city, how its design naturally funnels flow through funnels, and how these funnels are investigated as areas of consumer attention. The biggest and brightest signs at the biggest and busiest intersections. 

How we learn depends on how we are told, how context unfolds. I couldn’t tell you what it looks like above ground at my most common subway routes. I wouldn’t be able to find the subway entrances at most of these stops on foot above in the bustle of the city street. Below ground, I am contained and rendered linear. I am going there from here. There is no expanse, no extenuating factors of traffic, noise, advertisements, homeless. Very few attention deceivers below ground, those objects that mischievously attempt to grab your attention without any hope of maintaining their grip. Below ground, the symbols of attention are much starker, clearer, less muddled. Yet above ground on an elevated train…

The expanse of an elevated train. We float and meander and worm our way through the mire. Less shoegazing and more stargazing. We feel ethereal, sublime, even a bit transcendent. We are the middle point between satellite imagery and Street View. Google Maps (and its descendants) and Street View have changed the way we interact with space, unfamiliar terrain. We can know a place before we go to a place (to some degree). In between this binary of Google Maps (as satellite imagery) and Street View rests the slightly anachronistic elevated train. A throwback to a bygone time (not counting monorails here, but I suspect they fit) that offers an intriguingly emotionally and intellectually pregnant space for interacting with and knowing a city. I believe the map isn’t always the terrain. The map doesn’t account for the incredibly urgent perspective of being on foot in the hustle and bustle. An elevated train gets in without fully being in. It embraces flow through structure as its organizing principle rather than merely directional or social aspects. 

Granted, elevated trains are nightmares for those living in those areas, but for the passengers they are magically capable of enlarging focus without distracting attention. Engaged but introspective. A thinking person’s form of transport. I am enamored by cities as learning spaces. In case you didn’t get that from this post. 

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