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Traffic and commerce

Now that the scientists at Los Alamos National Labs have figured out the cooking directions for roasting every living human to a crisp golden brown without basting, they've turned their eyes toward understanding traffic. According to an article by Alan Sipress in the Washington Post, Los Alamos is using its supercomputers to try to understand why traffic acts the way it does. "Scientists said they are closer to comprehending the birth of the universe than the daily tie-ups along the interstate." And after that mystery is solved, perhaps they can figure out why Julia Roberts is a star even after her first on-screen smile.

The scientists are struggling with the basic models to use. Some think of traffic as a fluid with waves rippling through it. Others think it exemplifies chaos theory. (Well, what doesn't if you just keeping asking "Why?" long enough?) Others look at traffic slowdowns as phase changes. And Chris L. Barrett, who heads the traffic project, says "Traffic is particles with motive."

What a great phrase! How awful and how accurate. It captures precisely the attitude of most of e-commerce. Commerce itself is conceived as a type of traffic. Customers are particles with motive.

Now, there are lots of ways to expand this obviously sere model. We can say that commerce is actually about more than going through the checkout lane at maximum speed. We can say that the particles with motives are in fact individuals and thus personalization software could keep each person's existential authenticity in mind, or at least remember to ask me if I need more batteries for the vibrating wallet I bought last time.

But I think the most important point is that customers aren't particles any more. We're groups. We're wired one to another and we tell each other the truth.

For example...My brother had an Audi. He noticed that he was suddenly able to open the trunk without the alarm going of. After two weeks in the shop, the service people told him, "We checked and that's the way it's supposed to work." So my brother found a posting on an Audi devotee's site that said "Don't let them tell you that the trunk isn't supposed to be alarmed. There was a run of locks with a bad solder job that cuts off the alarm system."

So, suddenly each particle is as smart as the collection of all particles. And we haven't even moved from collective knowledge to collective power. Someday soon, preferably before the giant experiment in microwave cooking designed by the Los Alamos guys gets its global field test, being a "particle with motive" will describe you not as a customer but only how you feel on your very worst days

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