Project origins

Tim Maly

When we began this project, we called it “Rules of the Road for the Anthropocene.”

We described a need, driven by the Anthropocene:

The Anthropocene is the name given to the era in which human activity is shaping the planet in ways that will be identifiable in the geologic record. At the moment, the Anthropocene is typified by planetary crises and the looming risk of catastrophe. This is not sustainable. The institutions we have now were largely designed in the 19th century and they are not equipped to responsibly manage the power that our species has managed to accumulate. If we are to leave a better mark on the geologic record, we must urgently redesign the social structures, communities, and institutions that govern human action, especially human action with planetary consequences.

We chose “Rules of the Road” because we liked many of the metaphorical implications. Rules of the road govern how people with different goals and dangerous machines can safely share infrastructure and coordinate their decisions to get where they want to go.

We liked the combination of constraint and freedom. Rules of the road tell you what you can do and can’t do, with the promise that everyone else will abide by these rules resulting in a total system that allows you to travel more safely and much faster than would happen without the rules. Rules of the road are also silent on many important travel issues. They don’t dictate your exact travel plans. They don’t tell you what your destination should be or why you should go to certain places. That choice lies with the driver.

We liked the way that rules of the road mix methods. The traffic system uses road marks, physical barriers, signal systems, and training to ensure communication and understanding between drivers. Some of the rules are mandatory, some depend on the circumstances, some only kick in with an emergency or other surprise situation.

We liked the evocation of imperfection. Not everyone is a good driver, there are many hazards that can’t be controlled, and accidents happen. We wanted to acknowledge that no set of rules we could propose for planetary design would ever be complete. We wanted to recognize that there would be bad actors and conflicting signals.

We liked the element of universal legibility. The rules of the road accept a wide variety of modes of transportation, and almost everyone can understand them well enough to operate safely within their control. They provide tools for local communities to set local constraints that work for them (is there a bike lane? did you install a crosswalk? is there an express lane?)

We were less happy with the evocative element of the “road” itself, especially within the Anthropocene context. Roads, especially in their modern form, come with a myriad of detrimental implications—fossil fuel reliance, ecological disruption, wildlife endangerment, car-centric culture, the petrochemical industrial complex, among others—that contrast starkly with our project's intent.

Given these associations, while the “Rules of the Road” metaphor may capture some elements of coordination, communication, and constraint we desire, it also risks inadvertently celebrating or normalizing a paradigm we aim to move beyond. Our challenge, then, has been to either address and refine the metaphor or seek alternatives that convey our message without these unintended consequences. So where did that leave us?

We have moved away from “Rules of the Road” and are thinking of our work in terms of a design standard.

We have moved away from “Anthropocene” which—once again—puts anthropos at the center and instead have sought to speak and think in terms of the planet.

We are still working out what, exactly, this means.