Traffic Light Mind
How much of our lives are influenced by these American-made machines?
They’re in our games. Red Light Green Light, also known as Statues, has been around for over a hundred years, and there’s a milk-drinking version that was featured on the Emmy Award winning TV show Cartoon Express that ran from 1954 to 1966. Kids at home could compete and win against the host on TV, and elders mark it as a staple in their childhoods. As philosopher Roland Barthes famously pointed out, children’s games (and toys) prefigure the world. Maybe it’s worth asking, which came first: the game or the machine?
They’re in our brains. Neurobiologists insist there is a traffic light in the brain and a traffic light approach to understanding the brain. Of course it makes sense that our traffic light brains manufactured traffic lights.
Our eyes also have three cones that can pick up three colored wavelengths, red green and blue, which is apparently the reason why traffic lights use three colors. Red has the longest wavelength we can see; it can be seen the farthest away and this gives trains and later cars the most time to stop on foggy nights.
We also use traffic light metaphors — they’re “metaphors we live by” — in film production, sports, sexual harassment, eating, dieting, and childhood sexuality. They’re influencing how we think about so many things.
They even played a role in the creation of the nuclear bomb. Legend has it Leo Szilard got the idea for a nuclear reactor from watching a traffic light turn from red to green. Szilard’s nuclear reactor does kind of look like a traffic light.
When we sit with them on the street, they induce boredom which has its own physical and psychological benefits, and, weirdly, red lights “itch” according to psychodermatology and what’s called the traffic light phenomenon.
They also kill people. The very first one exploded and killed the policeman operating it, and when the automated ones that we know and love were first invented and installed in US cities in the early 1920s, people were a bit scared of them for a number of reasons. First, because people were still dying beneath them. Also because they had a negative impact on civility (I’m getting this from Megan Kate Nelson’s brief history.) Suddenly, drivers didn’t have to acknowledge other people at intersections anymore, the stoplight decided everything, and so the once daily public experience of connecting with other human beings turned into a private moment to sit alone, lost in thought. Therefore, they’re anti-social and encourage isolation and alienation.
These machines also quickly became what philosophers Bruno Latour and Michel Serres call quasi-objects, or objects with a lot of agency, and what Timothy Morton calls world-encircling hyperobjects, and what William Irwin Thompson calls the next alphas annunciating the next level of order — which is one definition of evil: the annunciation of the next level of order. Marshal McLuhan would say they’re examples of a tool we shaped that now shapes us. Nelson writes that the traffic light “shaped our cities and sparked our love affair with the car itself.” In a sense, the lights are extensions of our cities, our brains, and our eyes, especially with their cameras.
Every extension requires an amputation, as Mcluhan says, or every new technology requires a sacrifice, and so we gotta wonder, what did we lose? What’d we give up for these things? These American panoptic light machines installed all over the world keep everyone in control, they choreograph dangerous sites from above, and, and, they partake in making both more dangerous.
After they were installed in the 1920s, drivers became more anxious, and it quickly became apparent that the lights produced an increase in road rage (I’m getting this from A Phenomenology of Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City by Glen Wyatt). And we know how people felt. We feel it too! People get frustrated they have to wait at red lights, and so naturally yellow and green lights encourage speed, which makes accidents more fatal. It makes sense why some critics would call these new devices that encourage speed, “the most destructive machine yet to be devised by man.”
In what we now call the United States, about 20% of accidents occur at these things, nearly 165,000 accidents happen every-year because of people running red lights. A thousand people are killed every year in the US from red light running. Are the lights partially to blame?
If they’re “alphas,” they’re predators. Artist-paleontologist Micheal Garfield explains that we humans are haunted by all the predators that used to hunt us. Now they haunt us from inside of modern life. It’s not just a coincidence that road rage, speeding cars, and car accidents are all recurring motifs in horror films (especially David Lynch’s horror films).
What’ve we let into our lives? Emerson warned us that when we discard our angels, archangels take their place, and I find it interesting that to combat the invading traffic lights, some neighborhoods are retrieving what’s called shared spaces, places “where the sidewalk doesn’t end”; open roundabouts where everyone — drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists — can safely coexist; and these angelic spaces are proving that the absence of traffic signs makes everyone more cautious! And maybe we all should revert to whats called magical roundabouts. (See Eyal Weizman’s famous book, The Roundabout Revolutions).
Body, Mind, and Spirit stoplights
Stop, go, slow down. The lights signal a type of experience. Essentially, within the millions of cyclopean stoplights floating above our heads, we’ve got three conditions in a loop. Likewise, every person, every 24 hours, experiences three major states of consciousness in a loop; waking, dreaming, and sleeping — three ‘great states’ available to everyone, even babies: You’re mostly in just one at a time — in this case, the waking state —with the others pushed into the background, but they’re still there (as are their signature brainwave patterns). Feel them back there, near the margins? As the father of psychology William James put it (also a hundred years ago): our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all around it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens are other kinds of consciousness.
At night, we fall out of our waking state and start orbiting the dreaming and sleeping states, with waking consciousness now waiting just outside that horizon. Chaos mathematician Alan Combs thinks states of consciousness should be conceptualized as chaotic attractors, because whenever we change states, when we fall asleep for example, or more accurately, when the sleep-state begins to overtake us, we drift off as if carried away towards a new “attractor basin.”
However it happens, Buddhists point out that falling asleep is also “waking up” to these more subtle states of consciousness, and I hope you don’t mind if I indulge, but in the Tibetan system, each of the three great states of consciousness corresponds with a dream world or realm — so waking, dreaming, and sleeping states correlate with gross, subtle, and causal realms. Eastern philosophers also talk about how this “spectrum of consciousness” is supported by a spectrum of energy that runs from gross physical energy, the heaviest, to subtle or etheric/mental energy, to causal energy. These energies are also known as bodies or sheaths (because every mind has a body), and every body-mind has a realm. Therefore, we all have three minds, three bodies, and three realms!
The reason I bring this up is because, next to all these, there’s a popular Tibetan Buddhist practice called OM, AH, HUM, which imagines the three bodies and energies as three colors and sounds stacked on top of each other, going on and off like a traffic light!
Warning: according to the teachers, these maha-mantras, the Om, Ah, and Hum, summon very-refined impulses of creative intelligence sometimes referred to as angels and devas, so lookout! And if you take the time to imagine tiny versions of your favorite metapersons floating inside your body as the sources of the lights and mantras, they’re more likely gonna show up, and their qualities are more likely gonna manifest, evidently.
I should also mention that in the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition, this particular stoplight meditation provides preparation for realization at the time of death, which essentially involves a process of dropping through a spectrum of “colored” worlds from white to red and then rapidly down through to dark blue, black, and then clear light.
So, in a sense, the traffic light is not simply a location in space, but also a vehicle in time that can accelerate the evolution of consciousness, maybe even set us face-to-face with the clear light. (See also Lama Yeshe’s teachings on Om Ah Hung in Life, Death, and After Death, p. 73–83.)
But even without knowing about esoteric Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices, every day, that boring minute waiting at a light can become a moment for watching the “I” get lost in dreams. They hold a mystical almost koan-like potential when considered in this way. Our thoughts are tinged in red, yellow, and green lights.
They’re openings. They reflect qualities of the human condition, qualities that include glowing totemic signal-stacks turning on and off.
They’re also haunted, considering people die at them. There is a saying, “They only put up a stoplight when someone gets killed.”
They’re roadside memorials.
These manufactured entities influence non-driving behavior, they co-founded the Manhattan Project, and enough people have died, lives ruined, and property damaged that traffic lights are comparable to bombs. We can also see how these toys are a positive way into a decentered consciousness and a posthuman, hyperobject, actor-network mindset that’s decolonizing. They’re also good containers for visualizing the brain, and they help us think about an ever-changing three-tiered signal stack of dream states happening inside all of us, all the time.
Finally, like a good religious text, a stoplight is a space and time for probing and synthesizing, waiting, and accelerating.
For more, see Traffic Light Art.