Sunday, October 17, 2010


My brain was actually working the other day, which was good because it turned out to be a particularly disappointing day. When my brain is actually working, which is rare, I come up with random thoughts. And one random thoughts was that freeways are just modern marvels. I don't mean that they're marvels because of how they're built, how big they are, what they allow us to do, or anything like that. I mean those are marvelous, but that's not what my thought was. The amazing thing about freeways is that they work, at all.

Think about what it takes for a freeway to actually function. You have to have tens of thousands of people all driving cars. All the cars have to be reasonably maintained. They all have to be driven by people who can judge speed, distance, direction, and so forth. These people all have to have a shared understanding of rules of the road - how to pass, what it means to pass, how to merge (oh yes, they REALLY need that shared understanding), when and why to honk, when to stop (never), when to speed up, and so forth. And the thing is, if even ONE of these things doesn't happen, a freeway won't work. If ONE driver is sufficiently inept, they can either slow the whole thing down atrociously or they can get in a wreck and stop the whole damn thing. It amazes me that we can get tens of thousands of people to more or less satisfy these requirements every day to the extent that freeways actually run. In general, it seems impossible to get a group of 10 people to work together at even mundane tasks, but here we routinely get 10,000 people to work together on a rather complex task.

Now I know, Mr. and Mrs. Snark, that there are plenty of times freeways DON'T work, and that when they don't it is precisely because someone or a group of someone's don't meet those basic requirements. They drive like idiots, or they drive a car that blows up, or they don't know the rules of the road, or whatever. And I know this because I have sat there for hours paying the price for this failure of some individuals out of our 10,000 to be smart or lucky enough to keep the thing going. But consider, I live in a city which, with the metro included, has a few million people, lots of them use the freeways, and it is almost NEVER the case that I can't get where I'm going on the freeway. Given the variables that have to align for that to happen, it's kind of, well, amazing.

Another fascinating thing about the freeways is when you view them as a complex, self-correcting system. Freeways can be a chaos theoretician's dream experiment. A butterfly flapping it's wings, distracting a driver, causing a fender bender, causing police to come, causing rubber-neckers, can indeed cause the freeway equivalent of a hurricane.

1 comment:

Seeker said...

We are successful life forms exactly because we can do what you just described.....And they are truly metaphores for our lives on many levels....