Where the Water Flows


I turned the tap and waited, the water was always slow coming through this time of year.

I heard it start somewhere above me, the cracking of the pipes readying themselves for the flow. I could hear its journey through the house until its release in front of me, crashing out into the basin like a river reaching a waterfall. I splashed the cool water over my face imagining I was out in a lush green landscape pausing for a moment’s refreshment. How free the water must feel when it is released for that moment from the confines of the pipe. What does it make of this fork in the road? Is it just a fleeting moment before returning into the next pipe below? Just a moment across my skin? Or, caught by my mouth, the start of a new journey into my body?

I close the tap. I’m late for work.

I was going to have to catch the next ride from the spot just around the corner from my local pickup point. I was beginning to get a reputation for being the outsider in this AVR (Autonomous Vehicle Rota) and a recent software update meant it was no longer possible to squeeze an extra person inside if it was already full but they usually had a spare place. The cameras inside the car also made me feel uneasy. Its not like anybody did anything worth watching inside, however.

The morning commute rarely consisted of a nod to each other, although this seemed to be enough for them to communicate their distaste for me getting on at the wrong location. These AVRs may be referred to as car ‘sharing’ but the atmosphere was anything but. The sense of ownership that had been lost with the demis of the automobile seemed to have been replaced by a strange form of territorialism.

The rest of the journey was an audio tapestry of separate conversations playing out simultaneously resulting in an incomprehensible whole. I sometimes liked to play a game where I imagined that they were engaging in some sort of new complex conversation with each other. In reality this overlapping of speech in physical space was a new form of silence. Just the illusion of sound, a shadow if you like, of sound produced for another space, it was not present there, it belonged somewhere else.

The more I thought about this the more it was not just about sound but the physicality of the people. Each person not present in their physical space but existing for another location for another conversation another place. In this way, within these modes of transport we became invisible. The streets were full of ghost cars, an empty city where the only real presence was the data streams themselves flowing from one place to another. We were merely the producers of the information, sometimes unaware of what we were even producing.

I called this disappearing act travel silence. Once inside, screens were out and within seconds of entering the AVR you were at work. Not physically, although the speed of transport was getting close to making that a reality, but my presence was in the office. Each person disappearing as their screens sparked to life. It became quite impossible to use the space for anything but working. It was my moment to catch up with stuff that I had left loose from the day before. I would listen to my emails, the same soothing voice in the morning, my responses adding to the on board travel silence. The bing and hiss of the doors signified the end of email checking and my day at the office began. You could really hit the ground running and since signing up the AVR schem I was more productive than ever.

I joined the scheme coming up to a year ago now. It was a no-brainer really. Petrol and diesel vehicles were banned in many places, prices were consistently rising, before even thinking about tax or insurance, which for non-automated vehicles became ridiculously expensive as automated vehicles were almost 100% crash free.

On top of that I’d only be using the car for the small time I was driving it and then having to pay a stationary fee while it sat empty in the street.

Less and less roads were free to use and so unless I took a really long route into work I would be paying that on top of everything else. Whereas with an electric vehicle, I would be paying €1 maximum to fully charge up, which would cover the journey to work and back a couple of times. However, if I signed up to one of the AVRs it cost only a little bit more a month and everything was covered. I don’t have to worry about fluctuations in the road pricing, insurance, tax or any stationary fee as the AVR would always be in use for other journeys while I was at work.

Just like my phone contract it means that we always get upgraded with the latest vehicle. All with the added bonus that no one has to drive, hence all the extra time to work. Unlike public transport it’s never late and now that there are more and more automated vehicles on the road, traffic is no longer a problem. Some of the public transport was now also automated but it took the longest routes via all the advertisements and they were so large that the amount of stops became ridiculous. Not to mention that my premium monthly AVR pass from Google was only nominally more expensive than a public pass. Come to think of it I didn’t know anyone who had a public pass now.
The next morning I was late again, I didn’t even have time to splash water over my face. I grabbed my laptop and rushed out of the door to the usual spot. I ran over
to the door and jumped in.

“phew” I gasped. “Really thought I wasn’t going to make it.” My speaking was met with awkward glances, the usual response to someone breaking the unspoken code of Travel Silence. But it seemed longer and more tense than usual. There were no conversations, just flickering of eyes from me to the floor. In an attempt to change the scene I reached out to try and close the doors.
“It won’t move” said a voice, breaking the tension momentarily. As soon as I heard their voice I understood the stupidity of my action.
“of course” I mumbled, realising how futile my attempt to pull close an automatic door was.
“No, it’s not going to start moving until you leave.”
I fumbled for my phone in my pocket and passed it against the reader. It turned red with a clunk. Those territorial bastards had turned on their location services meaning only people in their catchment area could use the AVR. They could see I was paying for the service in my area. What difference did it make?
“no problem” I snapped, trying to keep my voice as insouciant as possible, even though I bubbled up with rage inside. I stepped outside.

The door immediately hissing behind me, the vehicle snaking off into the city. The air was cold and a light mist fell, doing little to cool my face, now hot with rage. I began walking but I had no clue as to the direction I should walk to get to work. I could perhaps find the nearest public transport hub but I didn’t have a pass and you could no longer pay for single journeys. My feet carried me on regardless, my head still in a haze of rage. I pulled my phone from my pocket trying to remember the address of my work, did I ever know it? I typed in the company name but there were more than six locations across the city and I had no idea which address I worked at.

Trying to squeeze my phone back into my pocket I tripped and it went tumbling to the floor the glass smashing immediately. I froze. Looking down, I felt light headed and sick with anxiety. I folded over reaching for my phone but then, feeling the blood rushing to my head I steadied myself and slowly unfurled lifting my head up and drawing a deep breath. I felt the cool air filling my lungs and a sense of calm came over me. For the first time I looked around. I was stood in the middle of a junction, an untouched patch between paths of speeding vehicles. They did not notice me. Now more blurs of colour than moving objects, I could walk straight through them. As I began to move again I realised my power.

Vehicles slowed automatically as they approached me or changed course to avoid me, their passengers oblivious to their manoeuvrings and to my presence. I was invisible to them now, I was no longer producing data and yet I had never been so present. Like the water leaving the tap I was no longer constrained, only a distant gravity of past experience was guiding me, I began to flow.

I had purpose now. Not some location that I was to reach but rather each step became my destination, became home. Everything felt so crisp at this speed, there was so much detail and texture to the surfaces. The sound of cars became a distant ambient tone that soon disappeared along with their streaks of colour. I felt heavy, yet buoyant, like I was swimming through its streets, slowed by its viscosity. I was out of my usual habitat but immersed in it. Not merely an observer to the city’s activity, I was the city itself. I don’t know how much time had passed but at one point I found myself back at my block’s door. When I entered my flat I slumped down on the heated floor. Buzzing and spent I drifted into a sleep. When I awoke I immediately grabbed a pen and a scrap of paper and began trying to draw the journey out ,which now felt like a dream, the scraps of which were collected in my puffy eyes. It was useless. However hard I tried I could only represent the journey as different lines from one place to another.

Distortions of the image that I was so used to seeing on the dashboards of the AVRs. A loading bar of travel. How could I possibly depict this experience? Perhaps there were others that had left their commutes behind for this rich, gritty view of the city. How would I find them? I began looking online for others but I found nothing. If they were to be found anywhere it was surely the street itself. The presence that I experienced was not split between realities I was there in my totality his coul not be achieved while in two places at once.

The next morning I woke up at 4am to leave the house with enough time to try and get to work using only my feet. I packed my bag with supplies for a longer journey than usual and a piece of paper as to try and take better note of the journey. I turned on the tap and splashed my face with the cold water pulling it through my hair and cooling the back of my neck. A golden light caught the drops as they fell into the sink. I felt a rush of adrenaline and tried to steady myself with a deep breath, my hands now clasped behind my neck covered with goose bumps. I reached out and plugged the sink, I grabbed the towel from the side and rammed it into the over flow and watched for a moment as the sink began to fill. Then I left.

I slammed the door and I imagined at that precise moment the surface tension holding the water at the edge of the sink breaking. Like a golden balloon popping in slow-motion the water released once again, flowing out across the counter over the edge and onto the floor. As it seeped into the floor boards it would begin to find its way around the cables. The cables which were relentlessly transporting the information of the city. Unlike us, the data was invisible to the eye but omnipresent in its effect. The new decision makers shaping our cities. The two flows meet.

One free in its movement, the other restrained in its path, sure of its destination. Along one of the cables a sparkle of optic and copper was visible, a break in the cable’s insulation. Perhaps from a rodent intruder or a mistake in the laying of the cables, a distant memory of human error uncorrected.

Whatever the cause, it was there. It was the opportunity for this digital flow to escape and join the other on its uncertain journey to be free. The water touched the copper with an electrifying buzz and a bright light spread out across the surface. Causing the whole block to short circuit. No one was awake yet, but devices started beeping. Alarms, switching to their battery, stayed poised, ready to wake their bedside companions. Their lights, however would not gradually fade up and the heating that was triggered by this would no longer turn on. The signal for the kettle to activate with the heating would never arrive.

This in turn would not trigger the ordering of the breakfast car to leave the depot to the housing block. The AVRs, not getting the signal that the block had woken up would only prepare to take one passenger that morning, the only one that had woken up according to its message at 4am. It was now 8am and the whole block was waiting on the corner for their ride.

A single seated pod arrived but its passenger was nowhere to be found. Each curbside commuter tried to squeeze into the vehicle but every attempt was met with a clunk and a red light. For a moment they were gathered together, confused, the crowd swelled as more and more people left their block finding no form of transport.

As I walked through the city, the morning sun lifting the dew from the asphalt, I imagined the moment when the swelling crowd finally broke out into the street and had to walk to work too.

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This piece was a written in the frame of Mobility, Utopia and Corruption in the City as part of INSIDE Master of Interior Architecture at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague and was presented at The Floating University project, Berlin, June 2018.With thanks toGerjan Streng, Anne Hoogewoning and Benjamin Foerster-Baldenius

Jack Bardwell

Guy Field