Last time I went into further detail on how the combined acts of individuals can actually serve to work against the needs and desires of their majority. Vehicle traffic was used as an example, citing a paradox wherein removing choice from a network can improve its efficiency. With apologies to the late Ayn Rand (whose ivory tower ideals I believe I can safely say are now thoroughly debunked by the current economic crisis) let’s explore that further.
I see this paradox at work every time I shop for groceries. As a male, my shopping approach is very specific and methodical. I don’t waste time browsing; I have a list, a collection of coupons, and I attack the process as if it were a financial struggle between myself and the retailer.
The main hinderance to my effectiveness is the multitude of unnecessary choices for many products. My favorite example is toothpaste. I like the option of 3 or more brands, but how many sizes and varieties do I need? Why do there have to be separate toothpastes for tartar control, bad breath and other afflictions? How do those disparate choices help consumers?
The reality is that they don’t. This is a prime example of individual producers each thinking of themselves as a single solutions provider. I daresay if any of the executive management stopped into the typical megastore and checked out a toothpaste aisle objectively they’d quickly realize just how hard they are working against their own success. Consolidating their product line could actually improve their prospects!
But individuals, and even collectives, have a tendency to operate in bubbles. The hope is that competitors will eventually be crowded off the shelf by our expanding depth and breadth. That thinking often leads to aggressive sales and marketing tactics such as price-fixing that border on (and sometimes are) criminal… which serves to, ironically, work against the best interests of the people being served. This has been seen to happen with products ranging from bread to computer software.
Competition for time, resources and ultimately profit is healthy to an extent of course but at its worst extreme demonstrates just how ugly mankind can be. Near the opposite end of the evolutionary gradient, ants exhibit an uncanny altruism from which we can learn. Entomologists have discovered that individual ants will engage in unselfish behaviors that on the surface would seem to work against them but ultimately provide benefit to themselves and their society. An example is allowing faster ants in a line to pass, thus increasing the speed of traffic ahead of them and improving flow. Conversely, human drivers tend to be reluctant to let anyone pass them, failing (as individuals) to recognize a potential benefit.
I’m not suggesting we completely emulate the simple lifestyle of insects. However, there is something to be said for finding balance between the needs of individuals and the needs of societies in which we voluntarily participate– especially when it can be shown that certain unselfish behaviors will aid the goals of individuals in the long run. This is where education is important; I believe we cannot begin too early to start teaching our children the lessons of the Braess paradox and how understanding it will improve our living conditions in regions of high population density.
And that doesn’t stop at cities. The internet has enabled us to form novel microsocieties as never before possible. We are at or at least very close to a point where these virtual social structures are more important to our individual prosperity than conventional physical groups. This is opening up newer challenges, where media server bandwidth is more critical than interstate highway capacity. How will we face these challenges? Will our business and government leaders see the value in applying network optimization principles to everyday life? Only if they’re educated, and that can’t begin too soon.
Note: I am dissatisfied with the way this turned out. To cover the main point sufficiently would have required another page or two… so I will try to revisit this subject again later to do it justice.