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What is the Deal with Crosswalks?


Entropy: the randomness of particles in a thermodynamic system.

When we walk on sidewalks there’s an unspoken order to things. Stay on the right, stay in line, don’t walk in between two people (especially lovers or a bunch of bad looking dudes), don’t stare at people you pass, and don’t drop your gum…well at least when people can see you. We follow rules like these all the time even if we don’t think we’re following any rules at all.

That is, until you stop at a crosswalk. You stop and a bunch of people huddle around in awkward waiting. Right then all of the previous rules are broken and forgotten to stare at the figure of the red man in wait of white or green. At that point most people grow impatient and just forget all order. Have you walked across a busy crosswalk in New York on a hot summer weekend? Between lost tourists and impatient locals it’s a gauntlet. Order breaks down, randomness, sets in, and selfishness takes over.

All those social conventions are really there to keep us safe. Humans find a way to self-organize in structures that keep crosswalk entropy at bay. It’s true with other ways we organize ourselves. Sure the organization that once served a very natural purpose can become a tool for power for a select few to wield over the rest. This is especially true when the function of that organization no longer exists. But what do most of us do when order breaks down smack in the middle of a busy street with only a few seconds to get to safety?

Look at how we organize ourselves. We build social and physical structures to maintain order for a purpose. We are also under the illusion those structures won’t change. Some will argue the Federal Reserve served a useful purpose decades ago. But now that purpose is defunct and the Fed is only messing up the economy. Those big church buildings were built with rich benefactors and a post WWII baby boom attendance spike in the 1950’s. But now those buildings are being abandoned as congregations die off. Once symbols of cultutal relevance and power, churches dot the landscape of modern ruins.

Order becomes randomness when social structures dissolve. Entropy kicks in when the energy to sustain order in has dissipated. Order becomes power when social structures lose their purpose and a select few insist on maintaining what they think order looks like by forcing others to hold entropy back.

So here we stand at hundreds of crosswalks with thousands of decisions all of which start with the natural instinct to keep us safe. No wonder why street preachers stand at crosswalks trying to impose their order on others temporarily out if it.

At our crosswalks we have a choice over-riding all others: Do I follow the instinct of self-interest gone awry? Or, do I choose selflessness and help the person next to me navigate through the dangerous current of the street to safer shores on the other side?

About Andrew Tatusko

Secularization, critical pedagogy, sometimes agnostic, politics, and a ton of running. Penn State is definitely not responsible for what I say.


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