Artificially Intelligent

Any mimicry distinguishable from the original is insufficiently advanced.

On London

| 634 words

I recently had the occasion to wander around London with no particular goal. As I was talking, I found myself composing a profile of the town, as one might see in a travel guide. I enjoyed the act of composition, so I continued. Here it is, written down.

The first thing I noticed about the city was its absurd verticality. Everywhere you look, every building is three, four, five, six, or seven stories tall. I’m sure this type of construction is familiar to people who live in denser cities (maybe New York?), the sense of being surrounded by walls on all sides was interestingly oppressive. The verticality even extends below the surface. I walked into what I thought was a donut shop, only to realize that there was an entire grocery store and restaurant in the basement (I bought some ramen).

Coupled with the verticality was a pervading sense of narrowness. Soda bottles were the same height but contained half as much volume. Same with the milk. Even the toilet paper looked like it was narrower than its American equivalent. One must infer that fridges have narrower and taller shelves, and toilet paper roll holders are mounted closer to the wall.

Even the Airbnb I stayed at didn’t escape the narrowness; each floor could hardly have been more than 500 square feet. It made up for this by having 6 of them. (Again, the verticality strikes you as absurd). One familiar feature of the place was the mattress crammed in every room and some non-rooms. (There was even a mattress mounted above a large bathtub!) I guess the incentives of Airbnb owners aren’t that different across the pond.

The one tourist activity I engaged in was riding the London Eye. It was a win on multiple fronts: it cost less than I expected, the line was shorter than I expected, and I enjoyed it more than I expected. It was also strangely (or perhaps unstrangely) terrifying to find myself so high. I noted that construction had finished on the London Eye, planes seemed noticeably closer, and Uber had gotten into the boat business.

As I continued walking, everything looked right but slightly off, almost as if I was being gaslit. The familiar homestays of McDonalds and Subway, and Starbucks were present but low in number and hiding in corners, the vast majority replaced by their English equivalents: Pret A Manger, Cafe Nero, and Tesco Express.

Other things too. People seemed bustling as usual, but they would pass on the wrong side. The book store I visited had several familiar classics, but noticeably less than usual, and some with different covers. Ads were present in a familiar number, but on buses and taxis instead of billboards, and always for companies I didn’t quite recognize. Even the street signs seemed to be hiding on the sides of buildings, reluctant to yield their information.

One of the more jarring unfamilarities was not knowing how to predict the crosswalks. They always seemed turned green twelve or so seconds after cars stopped being able to pass, but I didn’t know how to tell if I could cross safely when the indicator was red.

London also seems like it was designed by someone who cared slightly more and took slightly more time than cities I’m used to. The sidewalks are made of cut stone instead of poured concrete. The shop logos are less intrusive and set with cleaner fonts. The takeout containers are noticeably of higher quality. The bathrooms even all have hand lotion in them.

Overall, the city is too cramped for my tastes: too many people trying to do too many things. It was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay long. If the weather wasn’t nice, I might not even want to visit.