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Technology Changes Everything…or Does It?

Would you say that your experience of riding cabs has improved?

Forget about having to begrudgingly lower yourself onto back seats dusted with food crumbs. Think instead about the efficiency (or the lack of it) with which you reach your destination, or the accuracy (or again, lack of it) with which your driver reaches the pickup point.

We haven’t exactly moved on from that era of cab commute where you walk around looking for the driver because he can’t locate you. Yet, we are inching closer to an age where making it to the drop off point doesn’t mean having to compare your Google Maps with the driver’s.

But why is it taking all this time, cancellation money and missed appointments to reach the golden age of smooth transit? After all, reading a live map isn’t a particularly challenging skill to develop.

It’s because a GPS-led cab experience can only be made seamless if the average Indian driver steps out of his comfort zone.

And that means making a shift from the deeply embedded code of approximation to the new age code of accuracy.

Here’s what we mean.

We weren’t raised to read GPS navigation. If you lost your way, you flagged down a passer-by for directions. And in response, you’d receive a rough verbal map; a combination of turns to make, landmarks to watch out for, and sometimes, an estimation of the distance you were left to cover. But hey, that was just one man’s word; you would then also need to consult a couple others to finally set off as directed.

All in all, we were led by a people-dependent system of approximations, that was set in physical space.

Now, technology offers to streamline our travelling habits with our recently developed desire for instant results. GPS-led cabs promise accuracy by negating dependence on the local inhabitant’s knowledge of the region.

And yet, you find numerous drivers who first reach your general area through satellite navigation, and then arrive at the precise location after asking around.

Who’s to blame? No one, actually. It’s just a case of unsuccessful resemiotization.

Quick rundown: Semiotics understands resemiotization as the internalisation of new meaning; where one system of thought and action dethrones another. And the shift desired is often drastic.

Consider the concept in the context of GPS-led cabs.

Indians are a people who have long relied on community guidance and judgement to navigate through daily life. We don’t believe that it is ‘every man for himself’. And while this principle has recently begun to face resistance, there is no way it will be uprooted anytime soon.

It is within such a culture that the code of accuracy is attempting to shoehorn the habit of self-governance; a habit that requires people to trade off the otherwise grounded nature of travel.

Therefore, GPS navigation may have been introduced to revolutionise how we commute, but as far as the Indian cabbie is concerned, it is only one of the many job requirements that he is expected to fulfil.

Understood Semiotically, this attempt at resemiotization has seemingly failed because it has only brought about surface-level adaptation; the desired behaviour hasn’t been assimilated.

And we can’t expect complete assimilation till the masses take charge. Because resemiotization is only possible if the onus of change is transferred from change agents to the public at large; just as is expected with any major social transformation.

Until then? People will continue to grow friendlier towards GPS-led cabs. And the more they do, the less we will see of the black-and-yellow taxis (kaali-peeli). Transportation giants like Ola and Uber have already killed off the concept of advanced booking and hefty charges.

And given these never-before-had privileges, we will continue to put up with our share of ride delays and botched up navigation.

But what of when we can’t afford such hiccups? Will the average passenger trust to call for a GPS-led cab when faced with an emergency? Will they not, instead, turn to a friend or a reliable neighbour to drive them where needed?

It is now time to seriously address the Indian cab driver’s unenthusiastic relationship with his GPS navigation. And perhaps the answer lies in finding out what can make the horse drink.