How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Become Like Los Angeles.

Who do you want running the world you live in? Politicians? Robots? Your neighbors?

“Wow!” you might be thinking. “Are those my only choices?”

I was led down this avenue of inquiry by a few recent articles about Waze, the Google-owned traffic navigation system, which aims not just to help individuals navigate their cities but to alleviate traffic snarls by crowdsourcing traffic information from users and then using that information to output more efficient real-time routes. In theory, Waze is a city-size brain that knows where all the snarls are and helps to wind you through them.

This has led, in cities like Los Angeles where traffic is especially bad and Waze adoption is high, to large numbers of motorists taking shortcuts down once relatively quiet residential streets. Residents of those quiet streets are asking for remedies from Waze and from the city, while others, like Brian K. Roberts, co-author of a book called L.A. Shortcuts: The Guidebook for Drivers Who Hate to Wait, say that public streets belong to everyone and that the complainers are just NIMBYs who should devote their passion to improving public transportation. For its part, the city of Los Angeles has entered into a data sharing agreement with Waze, on the theory, perhaps, that working with Waze will be more productive than working against it.

The power of large knowledge bases to make our systems smarter is a popular trope of the past fifteen years. The past decade saw the popularity of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, both of which excited interest in the dynamics of human behavior as it occurs across large groups. The rapid rise of social media over the past decade has created even more buzz and, one might argue, accelerated its effects. Remember how we spent last summer half dreading/half hoping that we’d soon be called out to perform the Ice Bucket Challenge? No matter what you thought of it as a fund-raising tactic, you had to at least marvel at its relentless progress.

Though we don’t really have that much in common—I’m a pasty, Midwestern writer and father of two; it’s a “sprawling metropolis” known “for its Mediterranean climate, ethnic diversity” and for being “the cultural center of the American entertainment industry”—I have to come down with L.A. on this one. Widespread information sharing is part of the way we live now. We’re better off trying to get what we can from it than we are fighting it.

Photo by order_242 from Chile (nobody move!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.