Discover more from Mind Matters
The Red Light Removal Principle
Mind Matters is a newsletter written by Oshan Jarow, exploring post-neoliberal economic possibilities, contemplative philosophy, consciousness, & some bountiful absurdities of being alive. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:
Hello, fellow humans!
Thanks for all the support following our announcement of the Library of Economic Possibility! We’re eagerly building the prototype. We’ll get a little more active on Twitter as we get closer to launching.
This might be a seasonal thing, but I’m contemplating changing the Musing Mind Podcast’s name, largely inspired by feeling myself cringe whenever someone new asks the name of my podcast. Feels kind of…adolescent?
If you have any thoughts or suggestions, they’re much welcomed. You can comment them on the public Patreon post here.
Ok, in we go.
The Red Light Removal Principle & Economic Democracy
When you replace a single traffic light with the trio of a traffic circle, bicycle lane, and pedestrian walkway, you require that humans passing through these intersections remain more alert, exert more judgment, and participate more in the government of their own behaviors.
Turns out, you also reduce the number of accidents.
This surprise - that asking greater participation of busy humans leads to better outcomes - is a generalizable principle that can teach us much about the cancerous passivity our over-engineered world breeds, and the revitalization that follows participation.
In particular, the 'red light removal principle' makes a compelling case for economic democracy.
The first red light removal experiment was proposed in 2003 by Hans Modern, a traffic engineer in Drachten, Netherlands. He got the idea after noticing that when electrical failures knocked traffic lights out of order, the result was not greater congestion, but improved traffic flow.
So, he ran an experiment. He replaced the busiest traffic light in Drachten, one that handled 22,000 cars a day, with the trio of a traffic circle, a bicycle path, and a pedestrian area. An intersection formerly governed by a single traffic light was now a mixed-use space governed by multiple scales of human judgment.
In Two Cheers for Anarchism, anthropologist James C. Scott (author of Seeing Like a State) reports the results:
"In the two years following the removal of the traffic light, the number of accidents plummeted to only two, compared with thirty-six crashes in the four years prior."
What's going on? Traffic lights create a passive relationship between humans and their environment. When red, stop. When green, go. Judgment is only required during the flash of a yellow light. We don't need to critically engage with a traffic light. Don't need to remain alert, weigh options in the flash of a second. There are no stakes. And this was thought to be the virtue of traffic lights: engineer away the stakes, because it's safer that way.
In this passive relationship, we're governed by the black-box of traffic light mechanics. We go when the light tells us, and have no say. We don't know how exactly the light makes its decisions, and have no way of voicing our own opinions as to whether, perhaps, on this lonely night at 2am, when I am the only car at the intersection, it may not be necessary for me to sit at the light for 30 seconds before it turns green.
We aren't certain how or why the traffic light changes, but we are certain that there's nothing we can do about it. So, we think about other things. We may keep our eyes on the light, but mentally, we meander elsewhere. We aren't present or engaged in the situation at hand - why would we be?
"The regulation of daily life is so ubiquitous and so embedded in our routines and expectations as to pass virtually unnoticed. Take the example of traffic lights at intersections. Invented in the United States after World War I, the traffic light substituted the judgment of the traffic engineer for the mutual give-and-take that had prevailed historically between pedestrians, carts, motor vehicles, and bicycles. Its purpose was to prevent accidents by imposing an engineered scheme of coordination. More than occasionally, the result has been...scores of people...suspending their independent judgment out of habit, or perhaps out of a civic fear of the ultimate consequences of exercising it against the prevailing electronic legal order."
Let's extend this to where most of us spend half our lives: work. The American employer-employee relationship closely resembles the idling vehicle to traffic light relationship. We do as we're told by the black box. The workplace is a set of governing rules handed down to us. We have no avenue through which to exercise our own judgment. We can make no impact on the rules governing our behavior. So, the same passivity that arises in our relationship to traffic light intersections arises in our relationship to work: we're there physically, but mentally, we drift elsewhere. We're rendered less than fully human. We do not exercise our capabilities; instead, they atrophy. We rot.
The American workplace engineers human behavior in just the same way a traffic light does. That is, it considers it safest to engineer away any and all cases for the exertion of judgment, reasoning, and agency. Instead of preventing accidents, this is done in the name of maximizing efficiency in the production of profit. This method is also highly efficient at producing human beings who lack both the interest and capacity for agency in governing their own lives.
Experiments that apply the red light removal principle to the workplace have been ongoing for decades, and the results are similar to Drachten's.
In Germany, workers at large companies elect representatives that comprise 50% of a company's supervisory board, with voting rights and all. This gives workers a direct say in the rules governing their work environments by granting them voting power.
Results suggest that these codetermination laws are associated with rises in worker productivity. One study estimates that labor productivity rose by 16 - 21%, as measured by value added per employee. The same trend was found when studying codetermination in Finland (though with smaller effects, which may have something to do with Finnish codetermination not granting employee representatives voting rights, only a seat at the table to participate in discussions and share information and concerns).
Scott's concern is that in our blind run for efficient production in terms of costs and profitable output, we've created stubborn institutions that create "the personalities of subjects rather than citizens."
We've gotten so wrapped up in how to most efficiently produce thingsfor ourselves that we've lost sight of how these methods of production directly produce our-selves. Even if we catch sight of the ways we're left to atrophy by these institutions, we're sapped of the will and capacity to do much about it.
But the Drachten example teaches optimism: we aren’t locked in some negative feedback cycle of doom. If we change our institutions of corporate governance, change our policies, or even change our freaking traffic lights, we can redesign our environments so as to revitalize our-selves. We can apply the red light removal principle at every scale, from municipal, to federal, to planetary.
Economics in Nouns and Verbs
The complexity economist Brian Arthur recently wrote a paper arguing that economies are best understood as verbs (active, processes, relational, algorithmic), rather than nouns (fixed, discrete and abstracted objects, self-contained).
In it, he offers two passages about economics separated by 60 years to show how the field evolved from a verb-first, human science to a noun-first, mechanistic & mathematical science.
The first is from Alfred Marshall in 1890:
“When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in machinery, in processes and the general organization of the business have their merits promptly discussed: if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas. And presently subsidiary trades grow up in the neighbourhood, sup- plying it with implements and materials, organizing its traffic, and in many ways conducing to the economy of its material.”
Compare this with Paul Samuelson in 1950:
“Here is the question the scientist has posed for himself. He wants (a) to maximize the raw total of clothing production in Portugal and England, subject to (b) a prescribed total for food, and subject to (c) the two linear production possibility constraints of the two countries, where (d) all quantities must by their nature not be negative numbers. Mathematically,
Z = X2 = x2+x2 ́ is to be maximum subject to
x1 + x1 ́ = X1
x1 ́ + x2 ́ ≤ C ́
and x1 ≥ 0, x2 ≥ 0, x1 ́≥ 0, x2 ́≥ 0”
The father of mathematized economics, Léon Walras, wrote in 1974:
“Some say human liberty will never allow itself to be cast into equations…Those economists who do not know any mathematics ... let them go their way.”
(Yes, I think Arthur did a bit of cherrypicking here, but the sentiment holds.)
What happens if we admit a more verb-centric perspective back into economics? Arthur:
What would economics look like overall if it were a more procedural—more verb-based—science? Biology gives us an idea. It is a procedural discipline, not based on quantities growing and changing, but rather on processes: processes that determine the step-by-step formation of structures (embryology); processes that respond to their internal and external environment (immune response, gene expression, neural responses); processes that create novelty (speciation and adaptation). Nested within these processes are further processes, and within these still further processes, all in a multilayer hierarchy with processes triggering each other or inhibiting each other possibly randomly in complicated networks of interaction. “In the living world,” says Dupré (2017), “a metaphysics of ‘things’ is hard to sustain ... all we are left with are highly dynamic processes.” … By this token, admitting process to economics would reveal a world where structures large and small continually form, where agents and organizations continually respond to their internal and external environment and change from within as they do, where fresh undertakings continually create novelty. The economy would become a living thing … It gives us a world alive, constantly creating and re-creating itself.”
(You may notice, by the way, the implicit connection between over-mathematized economics and over-engineered, red light environments. That one led to the other seems likely. A “world alive” sounds a lot like the revitalization of human capabilities hinted towards by red light removal).
The Treadmill of Social Acceleration
In response to my recent essay on The Treadmill Tendency, a reader pointed me to a wonderful book by the sociologist Hartmut Rosa, titled Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (thanks, Jason!). It provides a different, but complementary angle on what’s behind this growing sensation that modern life is an exhausting sprint atop a treadmill going nowhere.
Rosa sees social acceleration as the defining feature of modernity. He’s interested in how it is that we’ve passed literal centuries developing labor-saving and improving technologies, and yet, we find ourselves with less free time than ever?
Despite a quantitatively large amount of “free time” in the sense of free time resources that do not have to be spent on the performance of necessary productive or reproductive activities, social scientists since Staffan B. Linder’s influential study, The Harried Leisure Class, have diagnosed an acute “time starvation” that afflicts contemporary society … “At present, American Society is starving—not the starvation of the Somalis or other traditional cultures, who die for lack of food, but for the ultimate scarcity of the postmodern world, time,” write the time-budget researchers John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey. They add that “starving for time does not result in death, but rather, as ancient Athenian philosophers observed, in never be- ginning to live.”
Hartmut suggests that what new technologies have really done is expanded our horizons of possibility. This sounds nice, but in an insidiously underhanded way, may also be the reason we’re more anxious, busy, and time-deprived than ever.
He introduces two funky German words that are helpful here.
Erwartungshorizont: the ‘horizon of expectation’.
Erfahrungsraum: the ‘space of experience’.
The space of experience is the amount of time you have to live and experience things. The horizon of expectation is the continuum of things one might reasonably expect to do, experience, or be in life.
The space of experience doesn’t change all that much. We have the time we have. We can save some time here or there, but that just shuffles around what is experienced within that unchanging space of experience.
But modernity can be defined as an accelerating expansion of the horizon of possibility. Technologies have violently flung open the horizon of expectation for modern humans.
When the proportion between the space of experience and the horizon of possibility shrinks, that is, when the multiplicity of things and possibilities one can reasonably expect from life grows faster than the actual space of experience one has to enact all these possibilities, there results what Hermann Lübbe calls a contraction of the present.
The spaciousness of the present is thus cast as the ratio between the Erfahrungsraum (space of experience) and the Erwartungshorizont (horizon of expectation). And ours is contracting at an alarming rate. Portable access to the internet means that any one of us, in any given space of experience, can reasonably expect to do a zillion things. Learn a language, read a book, watch a movie, learn about quantum mechanics, learn about anything else in the domain of human knowledge, watch sports, chat with friends, and so on.
A king in the 1300’s had a much smaller horizon of expectation than someone in the working class today. But by expanding those horizons, we’ve contracted the present.
Of course we can’t, and shouldn’t aspire, to return to the Erfahrungsraum / Erwartungshorizont of past centuries. The question is how to jiu-jitsu acceleration into something that doesn’t drive us crazy. This is a collective and structural question, because the structures that define our temporal ratios are socially, not individually constructed. Rosa:
In this book I will show that the manner of our being-in-the-world depends to a great degree on the temporal structures (Zeitstrukturen) of the society in which we live. The question how we want to live is equivalent to the question how we want to spend our time, but the qualities of “our” time, its horizons and structures, its tempo and its rhythm, are not (or only to a very limited degree) at our disposal. Temporal structures have a collective nature and a social character. They continuously confront acting individuals as a solid fact … Because the solid facticity of time and its nonetheless social nature are therefore indissolubly intertwined, temporal structures form the central site for the coordination and integration of individual life plans and “systemic” requirements. And, furthermore, insofar as ethical and political questions basically concern how we want to spend our time, they are also the place where social-scientific structural analyses and ethical-philosophical inquiries can and must be tied together.
I hope it’s clear how this, too, ties into the red light removal principle. The social institutions we build affect us at the individual, phenomenological level. They influence everything from whether we nurture our human capabilities or let them rot, to how we experience time.
Until next time,
Although producers are rarely even interested in the actual things they’re producing, so much as the profit they might fetch on the market as commodities.