For every gain, there is a loss. For every technological step forward, traditions can take a step back. Those are unrelenting truths of our age, and London stands as a prime example. As social media and other publicly shared technology disrupts culture and pushes our understanding of it into the future, it was inevitable that some of the U.K. capital’s most beloved touchstones would fade.
Our inspiration for this brief exploration goes by Willis. For professional reasons, he doesn’t want to use his actual name or license number. He drives a London black cab on some days and a bus for hire on others. His speciality is small group mobile tours around Westminster as he lays out the popular tourist spots and shares some lesser known insights along the way.
Willis insists the new conveniences of social media are driving some of his city’s most unique and charming traditions toward extinction. As he turns his little seven-seat Sprinter Van around the northeast corner of Hyde Park near Marble Arch, he nods over at a very quiet spot of hallowed ground.
This is Speaker’s Corner, where anyone can stand atop a soapbox and speak his or her mind to the world — as long as there’s no fighting, profanity and no open criticism of the sitting royals. That’s been the official rule since 1872, and legendary intellects from Karl Marx to George Orwell took their turns airing their views here.
“We don’t see as many people coming in to give speeches here now,” Willis says. “If you want to speak your mind now, you’ve got Twitter.”
While it’s an exaggeration to say Speaker’s Corner faded entirely into history, there’s no one stepping up today and no crowds to applaud or heckle. Willis misses some of the action he used to see there.
“Not only does Twitter allow you to say anything you like whenever you like, but you don’t have to show your face to do it. We lose something there.”
As a livery driver and London cabbie, Willis is perfectly placed to mourn the slow death of another unique piece of London history, The Knowledge. For decades, every taxi driver behind the wheel of the iconic black cab from Regent Street to Pall Mall had to master a massively comprehensive test covering more than 300 routes on 25,000 streets.
The end result was any driver in any cab you could hail in London could get you where you needed to go within the city without checking a map or asking for directions. Now, ride-share apps and taxi business disruptors like Uber are slowly strangling the black cab business into irrelevance.
“It means you lose that connection with the community as a cab driver,” Willis mourns. “You end up in a vehicle with a driver who’s spending more time looking at a screen than talking to you.”