In this post, I want to talk about navigation signs, in particular how the subway signs I encountered in Madrid were so different from those in New York City*.
In New York, a subway sign will say something like this:
This means two things. To get to subway X, go left. To get to subway Y, keep walking straight.
Here's an example. The meaning, for anyone who's lived or traveled in NYC seems fairly obvious. (Image source.)
Now, this sign, usually means that subway X is to your left but to get to subway Z, walk down this staircase that that you see going down.
For example, check out the sign on the left. It points to a staircase going down.
This sign, however, means something totally different in Madrid, as I found to my astonishment. The subway X part is pretty clear: "go to your left for subway X". The part about subway Z is however interpreted as: "to get to subway Z, keep walking straight." When I saw this sign in Madrid, I paused and looked around me for a staircase going down and was surprised to see none. After about 5 seconds of looking around and realizing that no staircase could be found anywhere remotely close, I understood what the sign meant: "keep walking and you will get to subway Z".
For an example, see this figure (to your left, source here, the image has been doctored to change the name of the station). The sign is saying "keep walking along in this direction to get to Salida". There is no staircase involved (although that's hard to see in the picture).
I am going to discuss some implications and possible reasons for this difference in what the same sign means.
First, I think this is a great example of what is sometimes called the indeterminacy of writing as a representation**. We typically understand writing -- and what are these signs if not a form of writing? -- to represent certain stable features of the world and to describe them. A prototypical instruction set, for example, has a certain sequence of steps to assemble furniture or on how to accomplish a certain task using a computer program. Sometimes the aim is to make these instructions as "complete" and as "independent" as possible. We sometimes want these instructions to "stand on their own" and at still other times, this "standing on their own" is taken as the measure of the "goodness" of an instruction set.
The example of the street-signs of Madrid shows that instructions or signs or any kind of representation can't really "stand on their own". They need the world to give them meaning (or to "interpret" them) while they give meaning to the world at the same time. Stable features of the world don't really exist but emerge from the interaction of the sign with what it represents.
So instructions for assembling a piece of IKEA furniture make sense only when you look at the components of that piece and the instructions together. The instructions for how to use a computer program to do a certain task make sense only when you're "in" in the program. Subway signs -- the arrows -- don't have any meaning by themselves unless they're paired with the world they are supposed to represent. And as the example above shows, the "down arrow" can mean two different things New York and in Madrid.
Here's Agre on this:
The work of relating a text [in our case, the subway signs -- SAK] to a concrete setting -- looking around, poking into things, trying out alternative interpretations, watching someone else, getting help -- will generally be both "mental" and "physical", though it is best not to distinguish. Relating a text to a concrete setting takes work because the text might be relevant to the situation in a great variety of ways. The text has a great deal of "play", so that much of one's interpretive effort must wait until the time comes. This is the opposite of extracting a "meaning" from a text as soon as it arrives. The point is not that interpretation is wholly unconstrained by the text; rather, interpretation is constrained jointly by the text and by the circumstances in which it is interpreted.Second, why does the "down arrow" come to mean two different things in New York and Madrid? Could this be a quirk of the Spanish language? E.g. perhaps in Spanish it may be more common to say "Stick to this path" rather than saying "Go straight ahead"? I am not sure and in any case, it doesn't seem like a good explanation anyhow (for which see below).
If you take a look at this page which has directions signs from many airports around the world (some are shown above). You can see that the Berlin and Istanbul airports have signs like those of Madrid i.e. the "down arrow" representing "go straight ahead" while Zurich, Singapore and Warsaw have signs like NYC i.e. the "up arrow" representing "go straight ahead". I don't think anymore that this has to do with "quirks of language". I do think this would be a fascinating research question: how did these simple arrow signs come to mean what they mean in different places?
Finally, here's a thought. If a gaping staircase does open up in a straight path in Madrid (as it does, say, on 42nd street in NYC when one walks between the 1 and the A trains), how would they represent it in a sign? I can't remember anything from my trip there so I would assume such things just don't occur all that much. But my hunch is that they would use a "down arrow", the same thing they use to show "walk straight ahead". This only proves further the indeterminacy of signs by themselves. A sign only means something when paired with what it shows. A "down arrow" above a staircase points to a staircase, the same "down arrow" when above a straight path tells me to "walk straight ahead."
Related posts: Notes on navigation.
* This post would have been so much better if I'd actually taken pictures of those strange signs. Alas, but no. Instead I'll be using diagrams and photos that I found on the web. Yay, Flickr and the Creative Commons License!
**For a good introduction to what this is, see Phil Agre's great paper: Writing and Representation.)