Information Obscurity and Indexicality when Travelling

Written a few days ago, posted now:

I am writing this in the Albuquerque airport Quizmo’s where the menu offers a range of entree salads, and a side Caesar salad. When I asked why there was a side Caesar but not a full-sized one, I was informed, with a tone of annoyance, that the “Roman salad” is a Caesar salad. So why…??

A moment ago I passed my gate, knowing I was early (hence Quizmos). A flight was boarding. The board behind the desk had a generic greeting. The sign over the door gave my flight number, and destination Oakland. Was my watch wrong? Had I changed time zones without knowing it? I asked which flight was boarding, and the person at the desk said, “Portland.” No sign said Portland. I pointed out that the door said Oakland. “That’s the next flight,” she said, exasperated, as if I had asked a silly question. (Woe to anyone running for the Portland flight.)

Earlier, I discovered that there is free, airport-wide wifi here only because I spotted a small sign stuck in a corner in the lobby outside security. Had I not been early and wandering around, I would never have seen it.

I could go on — this is just the last 10 minutes.

When I travel overseas I generally accept a certain level of cluelessness. But within the US, it strikes me that many institutions are themselves clueless about the knowledge and the conditions of the people they are supposedly serving.

An airport is, by definition, full of people both from here and elsewhere; and both frequent travelers and people who travel rarely. Yet this airport does little to tell passengers about its wifi and posts confusing signs for flights. (Similarly, I can only imagine how difficult it is for visitors arriving at SFO or Oakland to figure out how to get to Berkeley via van service.)

I rarely eat fast food, so it’s a recurring experience for me that when I do, I can’t make much sense of the menu. I’m clearly expected to know what their various names mean (e.g., “BK Homestyle Griller” – ??).

As our world only continues to get larger and more diverse (e.g., it used to be that Big Macs had no competition), the information infrastructure doesn’t keep up.

Another recurring frustration when I travel is trying to figure out the weather forecast — or rather, where the forecast is for. Last night in Durango, CO, I was getting both New Mexico and Colorado TV stations via cable. Maybe Denver and Albuquerque; that part I never figured out. Earlier this summer in the Sierra foothills I was getting several Central Valley stations; I never did figure out from where. So when they gave “our” forecast (which differed across the stations), I had no idea where they were relative to me. With 59.1% of US households with cable TV, the assumption that viewers are geographically close to the station’s base no longer holds — yet stations continue to assume, If you can see us, you’re nearby. (In New Mexico I was getting New York stations via satellite.)

Another problem for travelers is directional signs. Driving through Gallup, NM, earlier today, I only found “historic downtown Gallup” by accident, and with difficulty, despite 50 miles of billboards promoting its businesses. I have had this same problem elsewhere: the signs bring the driver to a town, then suddenly point to other towns; but where is the downtown? Once again, the assumption is that locals know where it is; but then locals would also know what road goes to which next town, right? So they don’t need any of those signs.

We live in a geographical world, it is true — but even the electronic media seem not to have noticed the much-vaunted disconnect between place and space.

(An aside: if you know Navaho jewelry — which I don’t — Gallup appears to be a good place to buy it. I saw people clearly in from the reservation to pawn their heavy traditional silver jewelry, and others bringing in their handmade jewelry to sell to the dealers in Gallup.)


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