On traffic signs, reptiles and future

A few days ago, I took a walk around Cambridge, and on the way paid some attention to traffic signs - those ubiquitous and mundane pieces of technology that usually annoy me enough on my way, to completely drop out of my philosophical view once I get home. From everybody else's view too, it seems - or at least I do not recall having any meaningful discussions with anybody about traffic signs. I'll try to mend this now.

Traffic signs are a great invention embodying the ancient dream of humanity: they tell you where you should stop, when you can go, what is around the corner, and some of them - traffic lights - even predict what will happen in near future. That's about all I would like to know on my life path. People dreamed of knowing these things before traffic signs existed, and they looked at nature trying to interpret natural events as "omens" - signs put on their path by some intelligent agencies, with the purpose to tell them where they should go and what they can expect to happen there. Alas, nature wasn't very helpful here, even though eventually people learned to recognize some phenomena as precursors to others. So with time, people decided to take things into their own hands, and to augment natural locales with clear indicators of what should be happening here, what is around, where are other similar places, and provide any other information that may be of value to their visitor.

What will happen next? Well, much has happened already since the first road marks were scratched on the trees. Our roads, homes, vehicles and bodies are covered with signs and labels indicating all kinds of things about various objects and what they did, should, could, or will do. We rely on designed indicators more than on natural phenomena for guidance; the objects they tell us about are increasingly symbolic as well. Further progress may fill the world with ever more sophisticated intelligent and reactive signs wrapping our selves with thickening symbolic blankets to keep away the cold chaos of the raw reality. Our environment may become much more hospitable, but the life in general may remain the same. Or will it?

A similar process once happened to primitive biological organisms, which used to suffer from lack of guidance and tended to "fall into the same pits" over and over again. Road signs would have been quite useful then as well, but putting them up was too hard. So the poor critters developed little attached signs that would see the situation and tell the bodies what is going on and what they should do. We call these "smart signs" sensors and brains. They were so successful that after a while they literally enveloped - and pervaded - the once primitive bodies with "reactive covers protecting them from the cold chaos of the raw environment". The life of the primitives - from mitochondria to our reptilian brains - became more comfortable, though did not change that much; they gained in safety and convenience, but had to lose some independence and learned to play specialized ("professional") roles in the new situation. So, assessing the new circumstances, a mitochondrion or (my body + my reptilian brain) may still feel... Although... why would I (a reactive system of perceptions and symbols) care what these primitive substrates feel?

- A hypertrophied collection of road signs,

Alexander Chislenko 6/6/96