Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bad Behavior And Tolerance In Traffic And Beyond

"traffic jam" from nicpic's flickr stream. Used under Creative Commons license.

You may have missed the excellent piece in The Sunday Times on traffic behaviors: "The Urge to Merge," by Cynthia Gorney. I almost missed it; I just happened to click on it because, even though I don't have a car, I'm kind of obsessed with traffic.

Gorney talks about two kinds of traffic mentalities, which I'm sure are familiar to everyone.

The "lineuppers" quietly get in place at the end of the line in whatever lane they know they're going to end up in.

The "sidezoomers" zoom past all those patient lineuppers, using whatever lanes happen to be open, then edging their way into the proper lane when the time comes.

The lineuppers are all, "Those goddamn #$%& ing sidezoomers! No sense of fair play! No sense of respect! I'll NEVER let them edge their way in."

The sidezoomers are all, "Meh, all this kerfuffle about nothing! Obviously, the traffic moves fastest when all the available space is used. I'm just trying to, you know, move everyone along. So CHILL, lineuppers."

To my utter delight, Gorney decides to determine, once and for all, who is right, by talking to some actual traffic experts.

Various hilarity ensues, and you should really read the article. But what I can't stop thinking about is the conclusion, which is about as frustrating and annoying as a conclusion could possibly be.

Traffic, it turns out, moves fastest when most people are linuppers, but some are sidezoomers, and -- get this -- when the linuppers just patiently let the sidezoomers in.

I know it's wrong to extrapolate from traffic, to cooperation in general, to morality and free-riders, to the overall meaning of life, but I couldn't help myself.

Think what this means for human existence. Cooperation works best when most people behave, but a few people don't, and when the misbehavior is patiently tolerated?

I find this conclusion just beyond infuriating. I mean, it's one thing if it's best for everyone to be a lineupper. And it's one thing if it's best for most people to be lineuppers, and for the linuppers to punish the sidezoomers. Or at least get to feel really indignant about them.

But the idea that not only is it best when there are sidezoomers, but that the sidezoomers can't be punished? Really. Beyond infuriating.

The fucking icing on the cake, of course, is that not only does the sidezoomer get home earlier, he's probably having a great time, listening to music, chillin', talking on the phone . . . meanwhile the poor linupper not only gets home later, but he has to get all angry and upset along the way. At those goddamn sidezoomers.

Fast forward forty years, the sidezoomer is sipping cocktails at the lineuppers funeral, after the linupper dies of a heart attack from all that indignation he wasn't allowed to express.

I mean, I know "life isn't fair," and all that, but this is ridiculous!

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