Monday, April 26, 2010

Rules of the Road

Rules and So Forth

As the two younger women crossed the street, heading diagonally for the same patch of territory I was heading for, it occurred to me that one of the troubling things about Georgia is that there are no rules that I understand for how to deal with such simple matters as passing each other on a sidewalk or how to navigate intersections.

I have long been interested in how complex organizations behave when there is no single source of power or authority directing them. Take a flock of blackbirds on a prairie outside Lincoln. They swoop and swerve as a flock. How do individual birds communicate with each other so that they do this in such unison? System theorists like Mitchel Resnick postulate that in such systems there are simple rules like that of copying your neighbor. In human behavior there are rules too. For example, one can observe the crowds of students in front of the UNL student union during the break between classes. They don’t run into each other. There are unarticulated but understood ways of behaving that cause onrushing human bodies to move easily about one another. Systems theorists sometimes refer to these organizational entities as self-organizing systems.

Well, I am here to tell you that in Georgia there is a system of self organization but I don’t understand it. Georgians don’t run into each other any more than Nebraska students do. But the rules are different. She or he who can get to the place of intersection first has first dibs on that place—no matter where she or he originates. That is one rule I think I understand. Except I am uncomfortable being so aggressive. Another rule is that there is no such thing as a right to a pathway. There is no right of way—on the street or on the sidewalk. Thus, every bit of territory is up for grabs.

I’ve been here long enough to accept this and to feel no particular need to challenge others. This means I stop when some woman dressed in black from head to toe dashes out of a store entrance directly in front of me. She can have the right of way. To do otherwise would create a crash. It is similar on the streets. The taxi drivers do yield to other cars but only at the last moment before impact. Close calls are the norm. So perhaps the rule of the road in the Georgian self organizing system is that when the crash is imminent, re-evaluate your situation quickly.

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