the traffic cone
One day on a walk through Oakland I decided to photograph all the temporary traffic control devices I passed. I had in mind traffic cones, but they are really just one genus of this extensive, and I think ever growing, taxonomy. I came across an astounding six different devices over the course of a few blocks. I started noticing them all over and they do sort of resemble a species. Uniform in their basic characteristics (orange usually, moveable, in the way, and largely ineffective unless deployed in great quantities) they are so ubiquitous I think we almost don't see them anymore. They are trying to communicate with us, but sometimes it's unclear what they're trying to say (and other times we just don't want to hear it!)
I've been thinking a lot about traffic since my brother in law gave me an amazing book called Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, by Tom Vanderbilt. It's partly a history of how we ended up with the traffic rules we have, partly about how traffic works, and a lot about the psychology of being in a car. Vanderbilt hypothesizes that part of what is so frustrating about being in a car, is how limited the communication tools at your disposal are. As a species we're used to communicating face to face with a whole verbal arsenal to say nothing of facial expressions and body language. When we get in a car this vocabulary is reduced to two flashing lights, a horn and plenty of room for misinterpretation. You're sealed in the space of your own metal box and it's liberating - the freedom of the open road, the anonymity to sing (I do this) or talk at the other cars (I do this too), until something irregular (like traffic!) happens and suddenly you can't communicate, you're deaf and mute.
Which brings me back to traffic cones and their eerie resemblance to horns. Is it just me or we're the inventors secretly trying to convey this idea of communication by borrowing this shape. Wouldn't it be great if they did actually make noise? Blurting out at you as you tried to ignore them "I said watch out for this pothole!" And "what part of lane closed don't you understand?" Of course trapped in our individual boxes we wouldn't hear them anyway. Maybe the rules of the road actually keep us from communicating. If there weren't any stoplights we'd all have to roll downs our windows and shout like they do it many other parts of the world. You don't need a traffic cone if someone is standing there telling you to watch out.