Four things we learned about the UK’s waterways from Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map

The Regent’s Canal, London. Image: Getty.

In my ever-present efforts to satisfy the cartography-minded readers among you – i.e. all of you – I stumbled across an interesting map of England’s inland waterways.

What causes Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map to stand out is that, unusually, it’s scaled by time rather than distance, showing how long it would take to travel around the UK via narrowboat.

Such a map can only work when most other variables such as route and speed are fixed, which is true of the inland waterways, where boats can only travel at 4mph.

With this in mind and a sprinkling of other assumptions, our man Chris has created this handy tool for all types of boaters. Somewhat unfortunately, due to the collapse of waterway industry in the early 1960s, the map now mainly services retired leisure boaters, but I’m sure they appreciate it.

The north. Click to expand. 

Here are four things you can learn about boating from the map:

1) Travelling by water is slow. Really slow.

It takes 45 hours to get from St Pancras to Oxford by boat. If you were going to take public transport, the journey would be less than an hour and a half. So this isn’t ideal unless you’ve got a particularly gruelling working week to spare, but what if you needed to take a lot of luggage to Oxford, like, say 30 tonnes of coal for example? No, okay, it’s still a terrible idea. Driving still takes under two hours and now days we have big trucks and nice roads. You can see why industry on our inland waterways died out.

2) The weather doesn’t just delay trains 

The south. Click to expand.

Within the instructions on how to use the map, you can learn quite a lot about the unpredictability of the inland waterways. The timings are worked out based on “normal” conditions. Abnormal conditions would include “low pounds, ice, strong flow on rivers, excessive weed growth, or water shortage restrictions requiring waiting at the locks.”

Excessive weed growth is becoming a greater problem in the warm months, while ice restricts movement in the depths of winter. As we all saw earlier this year, trains are just as susceptible to freezing weather but if waterway traffic is to compete on the slow and steady mantra, reliability is crucial.

3) Choose your crew wisely

“An experienced and fit crew of 3 adults” is required, along with a whole host of other things, to travel at the speeds specified by the map.

“Fit” is fairly subjective and considering boating on the canal network is now predominantly an activity for the retired, I’m not sure many crews could still accurately be described in this way. An “experienced” crew member is just as hard to come by – judging by my friends, who will show up eagerly for a day of “beers on the boat”, yet rarely return for a second time after the realities of spending a day struggling to open locks. So unless you’re a 19th century boating family, best treat these times with a pinch of salt.

4) It’s (a lot) bigger than you think

From Wales to the Norfolk Broads. Click to expand.

It’s not something you’re really going to get to grips with from the odd walk along the canal around Kings Cross, so it’s easy to forget just how the UK waterway network is. To travel from Guildford to Lancaster by canal, one of longest direct journeys possible, would take upwards of 160 hours. There are 2000 miles of canals across the country, with a tiny proportion in cities like London.

They are living relics of England’s industrial past and have been preserved for our pleasure. Get out there and get exploring.

All images courtesy of Chris Clegg.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.