Fear the Coming Firetruck

It was a fun moment — or at least the type of moment I find fun. Standing, waiting on an elevated train platform for my ride home, the unfocused wash of city noise and inner-dialogue that filled my head slowly gave way to a newer, only slightly more intriguing thing. Sirens were coming from behind me and they were getting louder. But it’s the city, and emergency vehicles come and go all the time. So, as I said, that was only slightly more intriguing. What really got me excited (okay, relatively speaking) was waiting to see what the cars below me would do in response.

If you don’t know me, here is a quick dip into the sea of my odd fascinations to give you some context. I’ve always wondered what happens at the end of the world, or the seemingly end of the world. How do people operate and react when all of things they have taken for granted simply vanish? Does brute force become the law of the land? Does trust evaporate? Does any knowledge persevere, or is it all lost in time as people rebuild society and focus on simply surviving? Of course, it’s impossible to answer these questions with empirical data, because I might not live through just such an event (and there wouldn’t be any freaking internet to share it on if it did). So events such as a line of cars moving out of the way of an emergency vehicle represent a sort of mini-apocalypse that lends insight into how people work.

Now, you may have already guessed the ending — the cars moved. No shit. But the result isn’t important. We always elect a president. The economy always has cycles. You’ll always die. But how we elected a bigot, why VC is to be the next mortgage crisis, and why cancer is killing so many of us are the questions worth answering. So let’s focus instead on the how and the why.

First — why get out of the way? Because a giant firetruck is cruising toward you and that horn the driver is laying on is realllllly loud. Second — how? Well, we’re taught to pull over to the right because the left lanes are more express. (If I have the luxury of an international audience, I imagine this is the opposite in certain countries. You know who you are!) But what if you are literally in an intersection and making a left turn? I’ll tell you what: apocalypse. Two terrible possibilities become your only option. Either turn left to get out of the way into oncoming traffic which may not see the firetruck because it’s coming from behind you, or cut severely right across a few lanes, in the opposite direction of your turn signal and risk cutting off the truck that has decided it’s now best to go around you to the right.

And so what sets in is paralysis. I stood there, on my perch, feeling eerily divine as I looked down on the apocalypse unfold, and observed absolutely nothing happen for a good 5 to 10 seconds. (A long time for a blisteringly loud firetruck horn to be running constantly!) Until finally, having reached the moment of panic I guess, the driver made the left turn and sped off into the safety of the familiar.

That friction only occurred because the individual drivers couldn’t communicate with each other. If, for example, the oncoming traffic knew to stop, and the driver knew it was safe to make a left turn, no friction. This is how I imagine driver less cars working: a vast network of communication focused on smoothing everyone’s transport, not any one individual’s. But more importantly, this is how your organization works every day. Just like traffic, several to several thousand individual agents operate in a tiny bubble that is only so inclusive of the other agents working alongside them. If their focus is on everyone’s success over their own and they communicate to achieve that, no friction. If they focus on their own interests and fail to communicate because other people are irrelevant to their ambition, apocalypse.