Joy Stephens: Lost in the city and the technology

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The Wynyard Quarter has nice walks, but getting around them can be tricky for an out-of-town visitor without a smartphone. Photo / Janna Dixon
The Wynyard Quarter has nice walks, but getting around them can be tricky for an out-of-town visitor without a smartphone. Photo / Janna Dixon

In the digital revolution, a simple map would be useful, writes Joy Stephens.

On a recent visit to Auckland, I saw the future - and it was scary. I hadn't been in the City of Sails for a few years, and I was on the waterfront heading for an appointment in the Wynyard Quarter.

It's a nice walk along the waterfront, I was told, so I checked the street location on Google Maps before leaving the hotel, assuming there would be plenty of information to help me along the way.

Call me a visitor from the South Island without a smartphone if you like, but I am an information gatherer by nature and profession and have managed to navigate cities overseas (often without much language) using a map, identifying a few landmarks as guides and using street signs.

I thought finding my way to the back corner of the Wynyard Quarter would be easy.

Auckland's waterfront is awash with masts, marinas and occasional dead ends - but not many landmarks to navigate by. There are big blue maps, but reverse block (white on blue in this case) is not easy to read and in some cases the font of smaller street names was tiny.

As well, some of the newer developments were not on the maps.

As I toiled around the marinas with no end in sight, I began to feel panicky that I would be jammed between boats and vehicle lanes with no way forward.

It was a weekday morning, so few people were about, and when I eventually found somebody, I discovered I had overshot my destination by a block. It had taken me more than an hour to get there from Sky City.

Wondering if I was really stupid, I revisited part of the walk the next day to see if I had missed some key signposts. At the bottom of Hobson St, a large map/sign gives information about the times it takes to get to various places, but the Wynyard Quarter is not labelled.

There are two issues here. First, I believe the lack of information on the street stems from the assumption that one has a smartphone with GPS.

Second, the design fashion for minimalism seems to preclude essential information. Even the toilets I eventually stumbled upon were minimalist, with no signs that I could see.

They were of discreet design, a little like a storage shed or small substation, and just the brand name Novaloo, which might puzzle tourists and immigrants who don't know Latin, or Kiwi slang.

We all know we are in a digital revolution, with information screaming down the line whenever it is required. Is this always a good thing, I asked myself, as I tried to navigate the Auckland waterfront with minimal signs and clues.

Or are we entering an era where a person without a mobile device and access to digital information becomes a lost, stumbling, second-class citizen?

Detective work was required to catch a bus, with written information on only some bus shelters. I'm sure there is an app and a good website, but this is not so useful for visitors unfamiliar with a city and without a digital connection.

A walk through the main Auckland public library also showed me the future - here now. Tables of people immersed in laptops and smartphones and barely a soul among the books.

What is the future of libraries? Will they become council-funded internet cafes? Are they already?

The horse has bolted in this revolution, but once we all carry around the information we need in the palms of our hands, will society be a better, happier place? Will we engage with people or drift along in impenetrable, digitised bubbles?

A day or so later, I was waiting at a Takapuna bus station. I was reading the paper, when a rubbish man walked past and dropped a yellow rose on my lap. Before I had time to have a kneejerk reaction and think "this is weird", he said, "You smiled - that's good because it's a smile present," and walked on.

That simple gesture had me smiling for the rest of the day, because that is really what life is about: communication and connection. I hope we don't lose it in the mad rush to adopt the latest technology.

Joy Stephens is a journalist and communications adviser from Nelson.

- NZ Herald

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