john skinner

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Homo sapiens sapiens: Wave or particle?

When I was twenty, I worked for a summer in the Haymarket branch of McDonalds in London. It was a mildly lousy job, and God knows there are many jobs that are much worse, but it taught me a few useful lessons which are not the subject of this article.

Before working in McDonalds, I'd never paid attention to counter staff; if I had thought of them at all, it would have been as a slightly lower form of life doing the best they could. But there I was behind the counter, so that couldn't be true. Most customers had clearly never stood behind any kind of counter, because we were just dirt to them. This lead to some contradictory behaviour: they knew that our hands had been all over the food, but God forbid that our fingers should touch their palm when making change. Most of them never spoke but in numbers and product names. (This is not wounded vanity: I wasn't fast enough to work the cash registers. I usually ran the "back room" where organisation mattered more than speed.)

But the mass of them interested me more than the individuals. In particular, I was fascinated by the noon rush. Every day at exactly 13:03:15 the doors flew open and three hundred people walked in. This wave was absolutely consistent and absolutely precise, we worked out that it varied by no more than ten seconds. At one o'clock we would start watching the street over our shoulders; three minutes later the cry would go up "Here they come!" and all Hell would break loose.

Had you asked them, every one of those individuals would have sworn that they had exercised their free will, and chosen a time and place for lunch that suited their individual mood and needs on the day. Yet somehow, that didn't matter: a significant number of them freely chose to have lunch at exactly the same time and place. The rush was smaller but no less consistent on Sundays, so it wasn't due to the demands of their office environments.

People as individuals are free actors exercising their will and determining their lives as they see fit; but if you step back and view them en masse you'd swear they were following orders. I am reminded of the physicists' debate early last century on the nature of Light: whether it's a wave or a particle. Homo sapiens sapiens is definitely a wave of particles. We each go our individual way, making our individual choices to satisfy our individual desires; but the fact is that we are all walking in roughly the same direction at roughly the same speed. It's called capitalism; and whether we are chasing after a golden ring or are being lead like cattle by a brass ring through our noses is a matter of perspective.
Copyright © John Skinner, 2003. All rights reserved.
Last updated 2003.07.30