Constant constipation

After two days here in Trondheim, us new Ph.D. students went to Rotterdam for the quadrennial[1] combined meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) and the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST). Lots of interesting meetings, and a good chance to get to know the others. However, I remember the Presidential Plenary (with the very STS title “‘Acting’ with ‘Innovative Technologies'” – the plenary participants said there should have been quotation marks around “with” as well) was pretty boring. The only interesting contribution came from Steve Woolgar, who talked about surveillance technology and traffic congestion.

The last theme is interesting, because we know so little about why roads suddenly become clogged, and any attempt to solve the problems (building more roads, adding traffic rules and signals, mathematically modelling congestions) fail. Woolgar showed examples of how removing driving regulations actually made traffic flow better. This seems to be confirmed by recent experiments, at least according to this Scientific American article. The idea is that removing information forces drivers to communicate more, and this leads to more cooperation and better traffic flow. Woolgar mentioned a small German city where introducing complete anarchy in traffic led to shorter commutes and fewer accidents.

Similarly, some ideas are coming about how to make traffic flow better. By studying how ants move about, some clues can be found about where the problem might lie:

Dresden University of Technology collective intelligence expert Dr. Dirk Helbing and his team of research scientists set up an “ant highway” with two routes of different widths from the nest to some sugar syrup. Soon the narrower route became congested. But when an ant returning along the congested route to the nest collided with another ant just starting out, the returning ant pushed the newcomer onto the other path. But, if the returning ant came from a congestion-free route, she did not redirect the newcomer. The result was that just before the shortest route became clogged the ants were diverted to another route and traffic jams never formed.

The problem is how to make cars or car drivers communicate the state of the road they are leaving. There might be a solution to this, in using modern communication technology (you know, the Internet) to do the communicating. But the question still remains whether this should be centrally organized and coordinated, or whether the happy anarchy shall reign. Who knew traffic could be this interesting? And I don’t even have a driver’s license (yet)!

[1] Yes, I looked this word up.


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