In the nineteenth century, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell conducted a famous thought experiment. He imagined a container filled with a gas at a uniform temperature. He divided this theoretical container into two theoretical compartments, with a little theoretical sliding door between them. He then imagined an itty-bitty Leprechaun-like fellow, a “demon,” as he came to be known, standing in the container and operating a switch that opened and closed the door. The demon watched as molecules came zipping toward him. He opened and closed the door in such a manner as to let molecules with a faster-than-average velocity go into the left compartment and to let slower-than-average molecules go into the right compartment. Through the demon’s superhuman efforts, the temperature of the left compartment rose while the temperature of the right compartment fell. The molecules in the container became more organized, in other words, and the uniformity, or entropy, of the container diminished.
Ours is a world of demons. We’ve created all sorts of devices to impose greater order on society, to curb the chaos of human beings running around at different speeds like crazed molecules. Think of traffic lights. What are they but demons that regulate the flow of vehicles through intersections and other tight spots? As any engineer would tell you, we need traffic lights because our communication abilities are highly constrained. We can yell, or activate our turn signal, or make hand gestures — or do all those things at once — but for a bunch of cars to navigate a busy intersection smoothly and without accident, that method of communication is wildly insufficient. It’s way too slow, way too ambiguous. What you’d really need is instantaneous, realtime, non-ambiguous, continuous messaging, and that’s just not possible for a bunch of glorified apes prone to anger and daydreaming. So: demonic traffic lights.
The traffic light is a lousy solution — really inefficient, when you think about it — but we had no real alternative. Traffic cops are no better, and because they’re human you have to pay them and give them time off to deal with all that meatspace crap. But the world and its possibilities are changing. Now, we’re close to having an alternative to the traffic light system: the self-driving car. Computers, unlike humans, are really good at instantaneous, realtime, non-ambiguous, continuous messaging. They don’t get angry; they don’t daydream. When they’re connected to sensors and satellites and transceivers, and outfitted with the right algorithms, their superior communication skills actually allow them to navigate busy intersections smoothly and efficiently, without any signals. The network is the demon! It’s all explained in this YouTube video:
If you watched that video all the way to the end — fat chance, statistics indicate — you would have heard the narrator discuss a big complicating factor when it comes to the rollout of computer-driven cars. It’s what he, in an exquisite turn of phrase, calls a “mixed reality setup.” If you could snap your fingers and turn every car on the road into a computer-driven car, then you’d be able to go ahead and take down all those traffic lights and let the computers coordinate intersection traffic. The people formerly known as drivers would be free to focus their attention on what really matters in life, i.e., their smartphones. Instant nirvana. But that’s only possible in a Mussolini fantasy. The fact is, you’re going to have, for a good long time, both computer-driven cars and human-driven cars. That’s a mixed reality setup. The humans have their reality, and the computers have their reality, and the realities don’t mesh all that well. Remove the traffic lights, and, well, every intersection turns into an end-of-days battle between the forces of rationality and the forces of testosterone. It’s Larry Page vs. Rambo.
This post will now have a Brief Idiotic Intermission while we change the set:
I really like that phrase mixed reality setup. It has enormous explanatory power that extends well beyond cars and intersections. It extends all the way to Maxwell’s demon, I think. I’m going to posit — and I’m pretty sure physicists will back me up here — that the universe doesn’t much like mixed reality setups. One way to think about entropy is as a force, or a bias, that is constantly pushing everything away from a mixed reality setup and toward a uniform reality setup, the latter state being more familiarly known as absolute heat death. We began, pre-Big Bang, with some kind of uniform reality setup, and we’ll end with another uniform reality setup. That’s not something to look forward to. Uniform reality setups, in addition to being inhospitable, are really boring. Shit doesn’t happen.
I’m going to further posit — and here I may part company with my physicist friends — that human history itself might be explained as an ongoing attempt to resolve the tensions inherent in a mixed reality setup. What is war but an attempt by one party to impose its reality setup on another party? What is politics but a clash of reality setups? Even in the intimate violence of personal relationships we hear the sound of reality setups grating against each other. From this perspective, it becomes clear that the conflict between the reality setup of the computer-controlled car and the reality setup of the human-controlled car is part of a much, much larger conflict between the different reality setups of the computer and the human.
Have you ever had the misfortune to walk behind someone who is deeply engaged in manipulating an app on his smartphone? The person displays extraordinarily poor speed regulation, often slowing down, without warning, to a geriatric shuffle. The person also tends to weave like a drunk, frustrating your ability to get past him. You’re stuck in a slow-moving pedestrian nightmare. It’s really unbelievably annoying. It’s also another example of a mixed reality setup. Not only is there a conflict between the reality setup of the computer-enabled human and that of the non-computer-enabled human, but there’s a conflict within the computer-enabled human himself. His human reality setup (particularly the innate limitations to his ability to walk in a straight line at a steady speed while engaging in other pursuits) is maladjusted to the reality setup that the networked handheld device seeks to impose on him. There are two ways to resolve these tensions: you either defer to the human reality setup (ie, put constraints on the use of mobile computers in public thoroughfares) or you defer to the computer reality setup (ie, put everyone on some sort of computer-controlled personal-transportation vehicle, like a Segway with LIDAR). Or you just muddle through with a mixed reality setup and all the annoyances it entails.
Given society’s current bias toward efficiency and safety and the meticulous measurement of outcomes, I predict that, going forward, the computer reality setup will have an advantage over the human reality setup. Slowly but surely, we’ll defer to the computer reality setup, and eventually the computer reality setup will shoulder aside all other reality setups and become the uniform reality setup. The mixed reality setup that has always characterized human society will go the way of the Dodo and the PalmPilot. Plenty of people will celebrate this eventuality, particularly as they zip effortlessly through complex, accident-free highway systems while playing Words With Friends or writing odd, rambling blog posts. But there’s something to be said for the mixed reality setup. Sure, it leads to inefficiencies and annoyances, but it’s also life’s Sriracha sauce. The conflicts that emerge from the mixed reality setup are the stuff of art, for one thing. And, certainly, you can’t have comedy without a mixed reality setup. Steve Martin? Gone. Tragedy becomes unthinkable, too. The unexpected pleasures of serendipity and ambiguity? Gone, and gone. This may just be a case of preemptive nostalgia, but I already find myself clinging to my mixed reality setup, refusing to let go of the wheel. I’m finding it hard to see a big difference between a uniform reality setup and absolute heat death. We’re going to miss those traffic lights when they’re gone.
Photo from Ajuntament Barcelona.