Cyborg Traffic Cops

Mammoth blog has published the guest post I wrote for them as part of the Mammoth Book Club. It’s about traffic jams, freedom, and, yes, cyborgs.

The chapter they asked me to write about contains one of the most striking passages I’ve read all year. It goes like this:

Over time, the traffic cop was slowly transformed: his hands took on white gloves for visibility; his voice was replaced by a whistle; and eventually, he was elevated in a tower and communicated with the traffic via signs or coloured lights. The police officer slowly vanished, his body evolving into mechanical and electrical devices. His hands were replaced by standardized, colored signals. His eyes were replaced by sensing actuators, such as microphones, pressure sensors, electromagnets, or video cameras. All that was left was to replace his brain.

Sean Dockray, Fiona Whitton, Steven Rowell — Blocking All Lanes — The Infrastructural City p.106

If that doesn’t give you chills, then perhaps you are reading the wrong website?

The full post is here.

Two other things

First, it didn’t fit into the essay, but I want to build on one of the side notes. I have a minor fascination with city-driving car ads aimed at 20somethings. You know the kind: they are living life’s ups and downs, they are going to parties, there is never any traffic. In particular, I love this Scion ad that wants you to associate parkour with owning a car. The essay flowed away from examining this in more detail, but one of the most interesting things about cars is the interaction between their mythology of freedom and reality of tightly regimented movement.

I’m not just thinking about the stop and go signals of downtown gridlock (though the completely obvious contrast between the far ranging movements of Scion’s free runners and the constrained-to-the-road path of the vehicles is perfectly pertinent). I’m talking about the massive architectural network devoted to creating an environment where cars can roam.

For freedom machines, our vehicles are extremely sensitive. They like surfaces of a certain smoothness and within a range of grades. They hate a great variety of weather conditions. They can’t go far at all without needing to refuel. From a wider perspective, the freedom of the car compared to the herded imprisonment of public transit, airplanes, or rail seems pretty marginal. It’s all one dimensional ribbons of connectivity strung across a vast two dimensional plane.

I’ve talked about this theme in the past, the invisible infrastructure of cyborgs.

Second, I would be completely remiss if I didn’t thank August C. Bourré for pointing me to a number of excellent papers relating to this stuff. The final third of the essay was completely reworked based on material he sent my way.

Go read the guest post.