Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.

Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.
Image by Cameron Lyall, GNU license Wikimedia

01 July 2011

On Being Transported

In remembering the experience of riding on the wheel, it’s easy to feel slightly underwhelmed. Now, I don’t mean that the wheel isn’t itself a significant engineering feat or that it doesn’t look impressive in person, but just that in experiencing the wheel we are in some ways mean to not be wildly impressed. Part of this has to do, I think, with the nature of the transportation itself.

First off, I should mention that the wheel is impressive in person – extravagant in form as a sculpture yet purposeful in expression. Granted, it’s a little difficult to get a scope of the wheel while on the ground, but from the vantage point from the surrounding hills, the wheel, including the entire complex, does provide a sense of scale. The Falkirk wheel looms above the boats below and, when it’s in transition, leaves the top element jutting out over the hillside. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious architect, it creates a productive tension. The underwhelming parts of the wheel have nothing to with the way it looks.

We knew that the canal boat ride up and then down the wheel wasn’t going to be a carnival ride – fast-paced or colorful – but it was surprisingly calm. Most of us sat quietly in our seats, listened to the tour guides, and attempted to pay attention with all of our senses in order to get something out of the experience. From the standpoint of a kinesthetics, however, it was difficult to feel much more than the gentle sense that you are being slightly jostled. While on board the boat and riding on the wheel, we found it difficult to take interesting photographs that would dramatically communicate the feeling of being on the wheel. Something about the sense of being transported in this way isn’t particularly photogenic. Which is part of the point – those who need to traverse the canal system aren’t looking to be awed in the same way that spectators are interested in seeing a dramatic form of transportation function. The mundanity of what is essentially a lock system doesn’t change from the perspective of the engineers and health & safety officials who need to make sure that the transport is accomplished with no harm to boats or people. Tunnels, bridges, and ferries are dramatic from a distance, too, but not as awe-inspiring when you’re still in your car and still essentially navigating the world with the same set of interfaces. The immediate logistics change, but the dominant experience isn’t ever going to be as wild as they appear from a distance.

It’s difficult to say that the experience of being on the wheel isn’t supposed to be exciting because the goal of being transported needs to trump the experience of being on the wheel, but for those who traverse the wheel dozens of times, it might just feel that way. It would, I imagine, need to become habitual and therefore somewhat banal. After, unless you’re in a glass-bottomed high rise elevator, most elevators feel essentially the same.

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