I couldn’t see how the traffic flowed in perfect harmony. Instead, I saw perfect chaos.

I won’t be posting here as often, as my girlfriend and I are away on a nice little trip. We are currently in Indonesia, and are posting our adventures on a separate blog that can be found here: JenAndNickInIndonesia.wordpress.com

The other day in Jakarta and again yesterday while hiring a driver for the day as a guide we were subjected to crazy traffic, or what appeared to be crazy traffic.

There are no speed limits, at least none whatsoever that are posted. There are no traffic signs, no yield signs, no stop signs, and very very few traffic lights. Actually, no traffic lights yet outside of Jakarta. No posted traffic rules to tell people how to drive, but a never ending stream of cars flowing around a sea of motorcycles. Yet the traffic flows smoothly, without a hitch. People making left turns, right turns, passing each other, and pedestrians crossing the streets, chickens too, all without any signs or stop lights.

I became aware of my thoughts. I was thinking how anyone could ever drive in that apparent mayhem. I couldn’t perceive any rules, any rhyme or reason to what was going on, and yet everyone else seemed to flow where they needed to flow, everyone else was driving effortlessly. In fact, not a single soul seemed stressed, angry or upset. Nobody seemed angry about someone cutting them off, our driver never seemed to take the position of or state “I’m not letting this asshole in ahead of me”.

Essentially, it appeared 100x more chaotic than the driving we are accustomed to in the West, and yet it appeared completely stress free and there were no worries.

The first thought that came to me was that I couldn’t understand how drivers or pedestrians “knew” when it was ok to turn, when it was ok to go, when it was ok to stop. I couldn’t recognize the patterns, and so in my mind there were no patterns. But obviously there were, as the entire driving system functioned just fine. Clearly these people saw the patterns. But I couldn’t. How strange.

I had to wonder what that meant. If a pattern is there to be perceived, what stops someone from seeing it? Would an Indonesian understand how traffic worked back home in Ottawa? Would it make sense to him? The traffic spoke of perception, and that what is obvious and accepted for one person may not even be comprehensible or perceivable by another.

It also reminded me of the story of when Columbus came to America, the native Americans couldn’t see the incoming ships. Not that it was misty or foggy, or anything like that. Quite literally, the natives couldn’t see or perceive the ships, as they were things that were not part of their reality, and as the article I linked to above points out, leading research today shows that we perceive mostly what we expect or are accustomed to perceiving. How can you perceive something that you cannot possible imagine? How can one perceive a color never seen before? The research shows that if the mind can’t possibly make sense of it, it just doesn’t register it at all.

Whether the story is true or not isn’t really the point. The point, I guess, is perspective. I don’t think that there are necessarily patterns and systems (like when and when not to turn in heavy traffic) that are objectively “out there” to be seen. Rather, based on our views of our world, our past experiences, our outlook of reality, and a host of other factors (though outlook of reality is sort of all encompassing) our perceptions are created and catered to those things. They are born from them. I saw a giant mess of traffic and chaos, nothing made sense. But that was just a perception, and that perception was based on my view of reality, and in my reality traffic didn’t function like that. To put it more accurately, in my reality traffic wasn’t functional in that state, yet it was. It might arguably be even more functional than the flow of traffic back home.

Another thought that came to me was how communal the traffic experience was. Everyone lets everyone in, everyone takes their turn willingly. There was no sense of anyone being aggressive or being forceful. Like water flowing down a stream, there are no water molecules trying to get to where they are going any more than the other water molecules. They all just seem to flow and go, each passing each other in their own turn, taking turns passing each other, knowing they will all get to their final destination.

This in itself was great to see, but the important thing to notice was that it is done without any signs, without any lights. All of this came from inside, from each person that was part of the communal traffic experience.

I have written before, here, about how I feel that laws remove the selective pressure for people to behave the way the laws intend for them to behave. I think that laws and regulations put a selective pressure on people to follow laws and regulations, but not to behave in the way that the laws and regulations intend for. For example, a law might be put in place telling people to share. This might be done because people value sharing, and want good citizens who share. What the law actually does is remove the selective pressure in that culture for people to naturally be inclined to share, rather, it maintains the selective pressure for people who obey laws, and as a consequence here, obeying the law means sharing. People will eventually share because it is law, not because they are sharing people. They share for law, not for sharing. If the law of sharing was removed after several generations of being enacted, the selective pressure keeping people in the mindset to share would be removed. Ultimately, ‘good citizens who share’ wasn’t what was being fostered, rather it was citizens who obey laws, no matter the object of the law.

So here, in this place, we have no signs, no traffic lights that regulate peoples sharing of the streets. There isn’t an external regulation that governs how one should let other people take their turn driving. It just happens naturally, from within, from the self. I can’t help but feel that the cultural selective pressure to be sharing while driving, of taking turns is what drives this. People seem to share to share, not share to follow the law.

It made me think of a classic experiment I was taught in school. The study was on sharing. People were sitting around and there were things to be shared (beans, candies, chocolate, whatever). All of the things, let’s say beans, were in one bowl. The rule was that the bowl was passed around and once the bowl got to you, you ccould take as many beans as you wanted, but once they are all gone, nobody else got any. No other restrictions. The study found that these people more often than not were selfish and took all the beans, leaving nobody else any. There were no (immediately perceived – my addition) negative repercussions for the selfish person who took everything, as he had what he wanted and that was the end of it.

This experiment is a classic experiment for those that argue that public goods such as our drinking water, should be regulated or even privatized. If a public good is available for everyone and nothing stops someone from taking everything, then they will. That is how we perceive things, and that is one ideology behind why we regulate public goods.

But the experiment was done by the western world, in the western world, using people from the western world. The perceptions, operating systems and perception of reality of those people were already formed before taking part in that experiment. What are the proper controls for this experiment? I wonder what the experimental results would be if this experiment was repeated with cultures around the world. I think the results would show that greed is not human nature. Nor is sharing and selflessness. People aren’t born greedy, nor are they born sharing. I think people develop qualities and perceptions on how to behave based on the ideologies they learn and accept, and this comes from the previous generation. I think that how we view systems, how we view patterns, how we view traffic, is a subjective product of our perceptions, our perceptions of reality and our perceptions of life.

I couldn’t see how the traffic flowed in perfect harmony. Instead, I saw perfect chaos.

In the west we see things differently. The lack of stop signs and regulations might not seem like a big thing, but the reasons for necessitating stop signs and regulations are. They come from ideologies. So the difference in traffic isn’t about cars, or about laws, it is about ideology. It is on perception of reality.

The people in that bean sharing experiment reiterated an accepted western ideology: people are greedy and so we need regulations. That ideology is upheld because it is learned from the previous generation, and they learn it from the generation that comes before them. It isn’t learned through textbooks, but is learned by daily life that incorporates the ideologies themselves.

So what am I getting at? Nothing really. I guess I felt that they didn’t know how to drive here. They didn’t ‘get it’. They were doing it wrong. I was trying to apply my perceptions, my ideologies, my views of the world onto what I was perceiving. What I was perceiving didn’t make sense. Like the natives and Columbus’s ships, I couldn’t see how the traffic worked. I couldn’t see it because the way I perceive the world is partly formed by my previous conditioning. The “way to do traffic” isn’t objective and out there, rather it is formed and acquired.

Traffic, of course, can be an allegory for anything.