Jaywalking is Rational

The principle goal of the pedestrian is not to get hit by motorized vehicles.

The best way to prevent contact with automobiles is to avoid proximity with them altogether.

Jaywalking allows pedestrians to self-determine their distance to automobiles, thereby diminishing the likelihood of coming into contact with one.

Nowhere does a pedestrian come into closer proximity with a vehicle than at a controlled intersection, at which point their safety depends on the attentiveness and alertness of every motorist in the vicinity.

Given that a majority of traffic collisions happen at intersections and road junctions, they are perhaps the last place a rational, alert pedestrian wants to be.

Jaywalkers, by contrast, do not presume that their personal safety is the responsibility of motorists. Yes, like crosswalk pedestrians, a jaywalker also take their life in their hands when they cross the road, but they take their lives into their own hands. Jaywalkers must assume they are the only agent in the equation that is paying attention.

The jaywalker crosses the road only when they are satisfactorily convinced that it is safe to do so. In comparison, pedestrian crosswalks are only ‘safe’ to the extent that every other agent is following the rules, and they require pedestrians to accept this as a given. Crosswalks demand that pedestrians trust the people who are whizzing around, encased in steel cages, with their very lives.

Put it this way: ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’ signs ask you to accept, a priori, that everyone else is awake and competent. The question is: is this a bet worth making with your mortal well-being?

The point is not that jaywalking is safe. Jaywalking is ridiculously hazardous. But is it more dangerous than trudging across vehicular intersections, where the velocity transitions and directional changes of automobiles are at their highest? My argument is that jaywalking is ‘safer’ than crossing at controlled intersections.

So far, you have only heard one side of the argument. Michelle, my brilliant partner in life — and public health nurse extraordinaire — has a very different angle. And our variance in thinking makes for enlivening evening walks together.

Michelle argues that the world is safer when everyone follows the rules. Obeying the traffic signals equals social coordination, predictability, and process. Ultimately, the rules equal safety. If everyone jaywalked, the streets would be chaos. Invariably, more people would take greater and greater risks, equaling tragic increases in pedestrian death and injury.

From Michelle’s perspective, using crosswalks is safer on the whole because they reinforce standardizing patterns. Controlled intersections yield more uneventful journeys across the street precisely because they require human beings to trust one another. At this place, between these lines, pedestrians will walk across, and everyone should expect this to happen at regular intervals.

Two distinct conceptions of safety emerge. I think pedestrians are better off to avoid trusting motorists altogether. Michelle says we achieve security through synchronization; we are safer — walkers and drivers alike — when we can anticipate each other’s behavior with some degree of confidence.

In the end, this is a thought experiment about trust. Is it expedient to my personal well-being to trust complete strangers? Or is it a better defense to be permanently suspicious of all those anonymous folks whizzing around in their steel cages? Not to overextend the analogy, but our debate mirrors a fundamental question of society: what responsibilities do we bear for one another as strangers, especially in light of obvious power differentials? In a sense, when it comes to getting to the other side of the street, I’m a jaywalking libertarian, and Michelle is a signal following, collectivistic utilitarian.

If tasked with the responsibility of ‘designing’ a safe society, I too would seek to alleviate the need for people to run helter-skelter across the road. Yes, at this scale, I admit the logic of intersections makes sense. If everyone were a jaywalker, motorists would share none of the responsibility for their safety. Crosswalks are much more than a place to get from one side to the other: they are social contracts. They distribute responsibility: every motorist is now partially accountable for every pedestrian’s safety, too.

Ergo, as rational as jaywalking might seem for an individual, it would be irrational wipe out all the laws and rip out all the civic infrastructure governing crosswalks. I must admit that abiding by the social contract of intersections is in my personal interest precisely because it forces drivers to be responsible for my well-being. As with any contract, trust is a non-negotiable ingredient. If I want drivers to assume some personal interest in my mortal survival here, I ought to abide within the parameters we’ve agreed to.

I still hate the vehicle-to-pedestrians proximity at crosswalks. All it takes is for a foot to slip off a pedal, a driver to peek at a text message, or for an idiot to rush a turn, and I’m toast. I’m utterly defenseless. At the same time, intersections slow everyone down. We all agree, in theory, to take turns. We can look each other in the eye. (Or flip each other off.) Intersections force interactions. And it is because I am the defenseless party that this legislated ‘interaction’ is in my best interest.

And so… Michelle and I stand on the corner together, waiting for the crosswalk signal to change.

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Everyone Minus One

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the social and political theorist, presented the following scenario in his essay, On Liberty:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (II.1)

If everyone in the whole world, minus one, shared the same opinion about something, we can only imagine how reviled the opinion of the single outlier would be. Surely, such deviance would be explained as wretchedness, and doubtlessly the possessor of such an aberrant belief would be the object of scorn and ridicule. How much easier it would be, ardent defendants of the truth would argue, if that peculiar voice could simply be silenced? In the name of harmony, why not simply eliminate the lone trigger of discord? Why should one antagonist be allowed to ruin the otherwise unanimous confidence shared by everyone else?

Perish the thought, argued Mill: exactly the opposite should occur. The lone dissident must have the protection of the state on his or her side. The one voice in a million that is audacious enough to declare that all other nine hundred, ninety-nine thousand minds are mistaken – that lone voice must be protected from the mob that would eagerly silence it.

Mill founded his position first on a principal of universal, individual liberty. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” (I.9) If this individual liberty is only enjoyed by those who share in the public opinion of the majority, then there is in fact no individual liberty at all. Therefore, the freedoms of the entire population must be equally shared by the individual who critiques the rest of the population. A selectively bestowed liberty is no liberty. Or, in the words of revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919):

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege. (The Russian Revolution, Chapter 6)

Mill recognized another moral peril in silencing the lone dissident: squelching and silencing a person’s freedom of expression not only robs the individual of their right to speak, but it robs everyone else of the right, privilege, and opportunity to another point of view:

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (II.1)

Therefore, the heretical, unorthodox, nonconformist plays a vital role in society. The agitator’s ideas, recusant as they are, must be allowed and protected, for they are the only ideas capable of truly prodding the complacent assumptions of the majority – who would otherwise be happy to simply wallow in the self-pleasing massages of their own unchallenged beliefs (or, worse, crucify anyone who disagreed with the established doctrines of their group-think).

To put it another way: If I demand that your view should not be expressed, then I have not only concluded that my view is infallible, but I have also concluded that other people should not even be allowed to think about the idea for themselves. (“All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility,” II.3) I have not offended the speaker’s right to speak; I have offended the audience’s right to hear. I have made myself the arbitrator of truth; appointed myself as the judge over knowledge. I have betrayed my feebleminded, self-sanctioning assumption that the truth is such a fragile thing that it only survives because I defend it.

Thus the paradox of living in a free, liberal society: it is your personal benefit (as it is for the good of the whole) that even the most misogynist, racist, hateful, fundamentalist, sectarian, and incendiary voice has the equal right to speak as you do. And their right to speak is one in the same as your freedom to retort their shameful, corruptive slogans. If you choose to take their freedom away, in equal parts you take away your right to defend what you believe.

Therefore, argues Mill, the censors and regulators of ideas are not, as they claim, the protectors of the common good. Those who would appoint themselves as virtuous guardians over the minds of the people – those who would relieve the confident majority from all ‘offensive’ exposure to divergent opinions – such censors are themselves, in fact, public enemy number one.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) highlighted the personal dimension of this conviction:

I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. (Age of Reason, Introduction)

We tend to equate agreement with unity. We often bemoan a lack of common ideals when a government is elected by a slight margin rather than by a landslide, or when a committee motion passes with a single swing vote across a sharply divided issue. Oh, we think, if only we were only more ideologically cohesive, more strongly allied together, more resonant with common goals. Imagine what we might accomplish if we were all of one mind? Yes, imagine indeed. And shudder.

When you hear some ridiculous prattling echoing across the floor of an ideological divide, remember the linchpin upon which your freedom is founded: it is not important that we all agree, it is only important that we are able to disagree.

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“Quorum Sensing” as the Key to Democratic Reform

I’d like to pitch an idea. If adequately adopted and scaled, I think this idea could fundamentally change the landscape of contemporary democracies. In a nutshell, I’m proposing a collaborative system designed for enabling citizens to vote strategically, thereby making it easier to oust incumbent politicians from office at elections. I propose that empowering the “against vote” serves a fundamental, central role in “reforming” democracy. Enabling electorates to “negotiate” and reach conditional consensus would make it harder for elected politicians to stay elected, and this would ultimately be good for democracy.

Here is the idea: I’m imagining a website app/platform where I can register my intention to vote for a particular candidate in any given election. However, my voting intention has a caveat: I only agree to vote for the candidate on the condition that a given threshold of other people also register their intention to vote on the same terms. Everything about this website is enabled for social broadcast, interaction, and connectivity, enabling me to urge my entire network to rally for a candidate.

The goal here is to enable, us, citizens, to leverage our digital connectivity order to vote strategically. If it works, this would hopefully give the “against vote” a much stronger voice in democratic systems (especially in multiparty democracies). Democratic voters are often faced with situations wherein ousting a certain incumbent or blocking a certain contender feels more important than electing their “first choice” candidate. Instead of waiting for a ranked ballot system (which only addresses a certain aspect of the problem), this highly transparent, civilian controlled framework would provide an extra “tier” or “layer” of collective “quorum sensing” that might make strategic voting significantly more effective.

How familiar is the following scenario? Even though I might really want candidate A to win an election, I might be quite willing to vote for candidate B if I know that doing so will remove candidate C from the equation. In other words: I may want candidate C to lose more than I want candidate A to win. With a quorum sensing layer such as this, I can look up the historical vote count generally needed to win a particular riding, and then commit to voting for candidate B if, for example, at least 10,000 other people also agree to vote for candidate B as well. If 10,000 other people do not mutually “consent” to this agreement, then I know that voting for candidate B (as a vote against candidate C) will be ineffective.

The platform itself is profoundly simple: it does nothing more than allow me to declare my willingness to vote for candidate X on the condition that Y number of people also declare their willingness to vote for the same candidate.

The primary limitation and problem with polling, survey analytics, sample size algorithms is that they only capture voter’s intentions, not their deeper wishes. Pollsters tell me nothing about other people’s willingness to vote strategically for a higher, shared, or mutual cause. I need a way to signal my willingness to cooperate at a network-wide scale. Polls only tell us what we’re collectively thinking about doing, not what we might do if we had more shared information.

What I like most about this idea is that it empowers citizens to directly influence the ballot box by leveraging the existence of present social network channels. We are already “connected” in a network, all we need is a tool that enables us, en masse, to signal our willingness to vote in a more unified way — in a way that is contingent and conditional on consensus within a broader group.

Another benefit might be that it would become possible to see how “one vote” matters in the big picture. While everything about it must obviously work on the honour system, this platform essentially allows me to cast an “influence vote” before I ever go to ballot box. This initial, conditional vote obviously does not count in any officially binding way — but it allows me to see how offering my consent and rallying my support for a consensus-based agreement can, in fact, influence the outcome.

I think there is also good potential for galvanizing engagement and participation here: the answer to the question, “Does my vote really make a difference?” could be perhaps be more easily demonstrated by showing that every conditional vote does indeed depend on all the others, and therefore all the others depend on it, too. “My vote doesn’t make a difference” — well, it could make a difference if you just got a little bit organized with a couple thousand other people! The first conditional vote is easy — just a click or a tap — but it shows that a whole bunch of other people are actually depending on you to make your actual trip to the polling station come election day.

Technically, this platform could be used for everything from campus elections, to municipal ward campaigns, to provincial, state, and federal ridings. It could be transnational, transcultural. All we need is a structure that can give us more aggregate data about the willingness of our fellow voters to cooperate. Even with such a minimal level of organization, we, the voters, could become exponentially more powerful… and this is supposed to be the point of democracy, right?

If, hypothetically, this platform took off, one might suppose that it would make elections more about voting politicians out rather than about voting them in. And one might interpret this as a negative side effect, as perhaps adding more fuel to the pessimistic toxicity that already haunts politics. To this I say: let us accept that governing ourselves is an inherently messy ordeal. Choosing who will lead us from the cast of characters that volunteer for the job is a perfect recipe for perpetual contention and debate. Remember: precisely the reason that we expect leaders to tell some semblance of the truth is that we can turf them when they lie. The whole thing, supposedly, hinges on accountability.

This brings me to my central apologetic for empowering the dissenting “against” voice in today’s democracies: our elected officials would necessarily step up their game if they had to anticipate the power of voters to organize themselves against them at the end of their term. A good democracy is one where all leaders must dance on perpetually shaky, uncertain ground. They must be deferent and beholden to us alone — not to their sponsors, corporate backers, or special interests. The likelihood of being dissuaded from a lobbyist’s influence vis-a-vis the general will of your constituents exponentially increases when your constituents are adequately organized to terminate your rule. None of us are served well by politicians who think another term in office is a foregone conclusion. A disapproval vote — especially an organized one — is as equally important in a democracy as any other vote. And “vote splitting” is, therefore, an inherent drawback in democracies that this idea seeks to mitigate.

If we all got behind a framework like this, very little about most existing electoral systems needs to be changed, reformed, or overhauled. We don’t necessarily need to “reform” democracy: we just need to make it easier for us to take politicians out. We do not need to cleverly figure out a way to “make” our politicians listen to us — we just need to categorically fire the ones that don’t.

This is, as far as I can reckon so far, the most cost efficient way of getting ourselves organized towards this end. What corporate backed election campaigns have in revenue reserves, we have in network connectivity. Only against an organized network does the power of their coffers begin to fade.

I am throwing this idea out into the cosmos because I really believe that someone needs to build this thing, or something like it. And, whatever it is, obviously requires a lot of people to champion it, at every point in its development. Ultimately, this is not just about a website or an app — it is an about taking collective responsibility for holding our leaders to account and developing a technical solution to the challenge of cooperating with one another towards this end. This is the fundamental problem on the table.

My hope is that this idea sparks something in someone who has the capacity and influence to move it forward. I have done some thinking about the practical infrastructure involved, but obviously this is all laughably beyond my own skill level, design abilities, digital competency, and budget. All I can practically do is share it here and see what happens. If we, the people, believe it needs to happen, we will make it happen. After all, it is all about consensus, right? It is all about governing ourselves. It is all about a critical mass coalescing around a vision.

Update (May 31, 2015): I have come to learn more about the leadnow.ca campaign to organize anti-Conversative party voters in the upcoming federal election in Canada. This is a significantly more centralized concept than I was originally envisioning. And despite its insistence on being “fiercely independent” of all political interference, it is obviously difficult to appear even remotely non-partisan when one’s mission is to oust a particular party from power. I think the difference between what leadnow.ca is doing and what I’m contemplating is that a true peer-to-peer, quorum sensing, consensus building network does not start with a particular mandate or mission. All this said, however, I watch with great interest to see how the leadnow.ca campaign affects the Canadian political landscape come October.

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Do What You Love?

In a recent article in Jacobin, art historian Mika Tokumsitu addresses one of the most popular mantras in Western culture today: Do what you love, love what you do. Tokumsitu argues that the attitude behind this little inspirational slogan is a Trojan horse – a set of assumptions quietly eroding our respect for work itself.

This is Tokumsitu’s contention: if we believe that personal fulfillment is really the ultimate purpose of labour, then who do we expect to do all the other jobs that are not so existentially fulfilling? After all, society depends on a great many people doing a multitude of messy, unpopular, and quite ‘unlovable’ tasks, day after day. Even more importantly, the self-actualized doer-of-what-thou-loves still depends on the janitorial staff, the electronics assembly line manufacturer, and the sewage line maintenance crew. You can only do what you love as long as someone else makes sure the toilet isn’t backing up. As an ethos, doing what you love invites us to ignore the importance of most real work, and re-labels everything else as a romantic pastime.

The idea that a person can arbitrarily select any activity or interest they ‘love’ and then expect to receive monetary compensation for pursuing it depends on several factors, not the least of which include social class and economic mobility. For instance, the mother whose immediate concern is buying groceries for her children is not in a position to contemplate how her job as a cashier is supposed to reinforce her transcendent sense of meaning. For her, work is work – not a mechanism to validate her theoretical and unique identity on the planet.

Tokumsitu’s conclusion: the message that our work ought to be emotionally gratifying and spiritually rewarding only deepens the trench between the working class and the intellectual class. Even though the rallying cry to do what you love seems to celebrate the importance of work and career on the surface, it is essentially elitist and anti work at its core. Practically speaking, society would altogether fail to function if everyone did nothing but the things they love, therefore the ‘option’ only exists for a small, select segment of the population.

I also wonder what the personal implications are for believing that our work must be the object of our love. In our insistence that every dimension of life should be loveable and edifying, do we consequently undermine our ability to truly love anything? If I truly love my work, in what sense then do I truly love my family? In our effort to find jobs that we love, do we inadvertently cheapen our love for everything else?

Maybe the point of work is to work. And maybe the more we respect work as work, the more we will appreciate our interdependence. And maybe, just maybe, if work is respected, then workers, too, might be appreciated as more than minion cogs in a vast machine, slavishly working to provide a handful of ‘creative’ people the opportunity to believe employment is only meaningful if it is also a passion.

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