Patriarchy, traffic jams and complex systems

Before we get into the very complicated and messy topic of “patriarchy”, I’d like to share with you three fun facts about traffic jams.

1. Traffic jams are real

Some people say traffic jams are not real. The only real things are the individual cars on the road. Sure, sometimes all of the cars in a particular area slow down. There may even be common characteristics that these slow-moving groups of cars share. People might see these car clumps, and be able to identify them and label them as a “traffic jam”. But all of that is just an illusion: a label we have created. In reality, there are no “traffic jams”: there are only cars.

It’s a nifty philosophical game, but it runs counter to what most people mean when they talk about something being “real”. Traffic jams have causal influence in the world: they can make you angry, for example, and they can make you late. Physicists and mathematicians can study and create models of how traffic jams behave. They have just as much impact and measurable presence as any other object.

When people say traffic jams aren’t real, they are generally reacting to the fact that traffic jams are made up of unconnected physical parts that are not coordinated by a large-scale purpose or intention. Traffic jams are what scientists call an emergent phenomenon: a collective thing that arises as a result of the interaction of a large number of parts. But there are many things in the world that work this way. A wave of water is just a collection of individual water molecules obeying the laws of thermodynamics. Sticks and stones are just collections of individual molecules held together by molecular bonds. You could say that these things aren’t real, if you want to. Indeed, there are philosophers who have argued that nothing is truly “real” except for individual atoms and the laws that govern them.

That’s fine. There is no point to clinging to the label if you don’t like it. Let us settle, then, on saying that traffic jams are as real as sticks and stones. Whether you use the word “real” or not, the term “traffic jam” refers to something that has measurable  causes and effects in the world, and is therefore worth understanding.

2.Traffic jams do things that cars don’t

Traffic jams move backward even though no individual car in the traffic jam moves backward. This is common with emergent phenomena. Water is wet, even though no individual molecule of H2O is wet. A flood of water can kill you, even though no individual drop of water will be at fault. The normal and obvious rules of cause and effect don’t apply. Instead, there can be massive effects that appear out of nowhere, because they are the result of interactions among a broad network of wide-spread and subtle causes. In this way, emergent systems are connected to chaos theory and complexity theory. They are difficult to predict and, in the case of traffic jams, they are difficult to avoid or fix.

Our normal human instinct when we see a traffic jam is to look for a single, identifiable root cause: an accident, a construction site, or a particular bad driver that is causing the whole thing. But traffic jams often occur for no apparent reason, as the result of the collective actions of all of the drivers, even when no cars are doing anything particularly wrong. You don’t have to have a “bad guy” for a traffic jam to happen.

3. You can help prevent traffic jams

The fact that there isn’t always a single “cause” or “bad guy” behind a traffic jam doesn’t mean it is inevitable, or that it is “nobody’s fault”. A traffic jam is more than just people slowing down to be cautious when there are too many cars on the road. Even on a densely packed highway it is possible for everyone to drive cautiously and well at consistent speeds: they just don’t do it because people are not perfect drivers, and they make dumb mistakes.

This past weekend, Gizmodo published an article called “Your bad driving is the reason traffic jams exist.” The article is making the case for autonomous self-driving vehicles, because vehicles like that can be programmed to drive in a way that research shows will reduce or eliminate traffic jams: they will keep a large enough buffer space between cars, they will not frantically change lanes back and forth trying to find the “perfect” lane to be in, they will not cut each other off and try to fill up every single inch of space. In short, they will not partake in the tiny “bad habits” that frustrated drivers partake in that always make traffic jams worse.

The article even makes the fascinating point that most people who engage in the minute “bad habits” that contribute to traffic jams are completely unaware that they are part of the problem. They think they are good drivers. In fact, often times the people who cut others off and pack in very close to the cars in front of them believe they are doing the right thing, even though their behavior is contributing to making the traffic jam worse for everyone.

But the article is wrong when it takes the nihilistic stance that humans aren’t trainable. People can be conscious and self-aware, and we can educate people about what they need to change about their driving habits in traffic jams so that the traffic jams will go away. It might be difficult, and it might take a long time: but in the end human beings can be educated. That is how we ended up being civilized animals in the first place.



What lessons about patriarchy can we take away from all of this talk of traffic jams?

First, getting into arguments about whether patriarchy “really exists” is fruitless. If you don’t like the label “patriarchy”, fine: let’s drop the label.  But we still live in a world where women make up slightly more than 50% of the population and hold 20% of the seats in the United States congress. (To take just one simple example of a gender disparity.) That is something that can be studied, and should be understood. That is something that, if we think it is undesirable (like a traffic jam), we can look into figuring out solutions for.

Second, we can’t over-simplify our understanding of the cause. It’s wrong to assume that there is some kind of overwhelming, overarching malevolent force at work. Just as there are traffic jams without “accidents” and without individual or group of individuals maliciously thinking “oooh, I’m going to cause slow traffic today!”, we can see gender-based imbalances in the world even without anybody sitting in his seat in power thinking, “Keep the bitches out!”

Thirdly, the fact that people are acting freely doesn’t mean the outcome is a straight-forward expression of what people want. This is something I see often in conversations about patriarchy, for example: “More women could go into politics if they wanted to, so the fact that only 20% of the seats in Congress are women just shows that women don’t want to be in politics as much as men!” This kind of argument is like saying, “Everyone on the road could just drive 10 miles-per-hour faster if they wanted to, so the fact that they are in start-and-stop traffic means they want to be!” In complex systems, everybody is constrained by everyone else in complex ways, even though every individual agent is acting “freely” in the context of the system they are in.

Finally, the fact that there is no identifiable person or thing “behind” gender disparity in outcomes does not mean that it’s inevitable or natural or “nobody’s fault”. All of the people in the traffic jam can make small adjustments to their driving, all of which can contribute to making the traffic jam go away faster. We can train people to not follow as closely in dense traffic, and get people to stop being so overly-eager that they cut into every tiny little space or change lanes every two minutes. It will be difficult, because the results will only start being felt by everyone when enough people start driving “correctly” in heavy traffic. But that doesn’t mean traffic jams are a problem that are impossible to fix.

Finally, here’s the real kicker: You, yourself, can take steps to drive better in heavy traffic jams, without feeling like you are admitting to some kind of wrongdoing. I see many people, both men and women, who constantly point fingers at others and say, “I’m not sexist, I’m doing everything I should, if there are gender disparities in the world then it is you who needs to change!” That isn’t helpful, and usually it isn’t accurate either. We all need to simply drive better, not yell at other drivers, if we want traffic jams to go away.

A traffic jam