Thinking about the kind of cyborgs we become with traffic lights is certainly odd… we think about traffic lights as part of the road, not as part of us. But whether as driver or as pedestrians, traffic lights are cybernetic systems that control or influence how we behave. The car-human-traffic light system is a cyborg system, one that intersects with the human-traffic light system we encounter on foot in ways that are not always helpful.
While a great many car-human cyborgs respect the signals given by traffic lights (which are effectively traffic control robots), there is a nasty tendency for cyber-impetuousness. As the light turns amber (yellow in the US), there’s a sudden urge to speed through the lights, rather than stop. Even though our journey will only be interrupted by a minute and our final time at destination will be barely affected at all, there is a desire not to be impeded – and then the opposite reaction happens: a potentially dangerous dash across the line.
As pedestrians, the same cyber-impetuousness happens when we face a long walk to reach a designated crossing but could easily (sometimes not so easily…) dash across the road in a break in the traffic. Again, we don’t want our journey to be impeded and we are willing to shoulder a risk in safety, to ourselves and others, in order to satisfy our impatience. In the case of the pedestrian’s situation (although we rarely think about it consciously) the problem is exacerbated since city planners have almost universally favoured the car-human cyborg over the human on foot. In the United Kingdom, pedestrian crossings are not always or often in the places where ‘foot traffic’ flows naturally; in much of the US, travelling on foot in the majority of places is impossible. On foot, there are a great many places where you are simply less important than when you are a car-human cyborg.
The problem of vehicular cyber-impetuousness might perhaps be addressed in various different ways, not all of them practical. I sometimes idly dream of automatic paintball guns shooting those cars which run red lights, but few would approve of this vigilantism. Adding some cost, small or otherwise, to not stopping could make a difference: all car-human cyborgs respect severe damage tire spikes, not all respect pedestrians. Automatic number plate recognition could be used to leverage fines. Given that roads are always smoky, you could even produce a ‘wall of lasers’ when the lights change, creating the impression of a barrier. Sometimes, simple psychological tricks are enough to make the difference.
I find it fascinating that we treat traffic lights as necessary: it shows that we think cars are necessary. And that in turn suggests that we can’t imagine a world without cars. Even as the urban infrastructure problems become insurmountable, we’re not willing to consider giving up or changing this most problematic of cyborgs.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #15