Monday, August 05, 2019

Our Agreed Upon Fictions

I gave up my car several years ago, opting for a lifestyle of mass transit, walking, cycling, and the occasional Uber or Lyft. I don't miss driving in the least. Indeed, not having to fret with traffic and parking has given me an appreciation for this uniquely human activity of getting from one place to another in harmony with all those other humans getting from one place to another. That's right, I've used the word harmony, not a concept normally sees connected to blaring horns, screeching tires, and road rage, but one that most of the time applies to this remarkably complex urban activity.

I was musing on this recently as I was being driven along Interstate 5, the eight-lane scar of highway that divides downtown Seattle from Capitol and First Hills. Traffic was heavy, but moving at speed as we merged from the left. It's almost common knowledge that modern humans, especially in such a politically, racially, and economically divided nation as the US, are losing their ability to cooperate, but here is was. It struck me as nothing short of miraculous that all of these people, driving all of these cars, were managing, as they do day after day, to carry on at high speeds like this without creating a massive pile up. There were a few signs and lane markings, of course, the barest of shorthand of instruction. No one was directing us, there were no squad cars in sight to threaten us, yet here we all were, mere inches away from one another, trusting one another with our very lives in this project, cooperating at a level that no other animal could ever hope to achieve. Sure, we all shake our fists and pound our steering wheels at times, but no one ever said that human cooperation would be without its frustrations.

As I rode as a passenger, I realized that this can only work because we have all, at some level, agreed that this is how it will work. Every driver out there was operating their vehicle according to the plot of a story we humans are telling together about how to drive cars on highways. There is no objective reality to what we were doing. Any one of us could be driving in any direction at any speed according to any set of rules or no rules at all, yet here we were, thousands of us, acting not as individuals, but according to a fiction we have all settled upon about driving cars together at death defying speeds.

This is, of course, how all of society works. Yes, we have laws and scofflaws, rules and rule breakers, but those things only serve highlight how powerful and important our agreed upon fictions are. And while there are times to question those stories we collectively tell, to challenge them, and even to strive to change them, it's also sometimes important to step back and admire them: they really can be quite beautiful.

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