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My Crusade Against Cultural Stupidity, Part I

I just flew from Ithaca, New York to Frankfurt, Germany with a long layover at Newark Airport. My ticket, printed out a day before the flight, said that the gate for the Frankfurt flight had not yet been assigned. When I arrived at Newark airport’s terminal C, I checked the departure board and saw the flight listed but no gate—unsurprising, because the departure time was still six hours away.

departure boardWhat would you do? I settled down to work and checked the departure board at periodic intervals. Forty-five minutes before the flight I got worried and checked at the customer service desk, where I learned that my flight was leaving from Terminal B and that the terminal and gate would never be listed on Terminal C’s departure boards. I had to sprint to make a flight that I had been waiting for all day!

When I incredulously told my story to the gate attendant, he smiled a weary smile. He had heard the story before but could do nothing about it because he worked for the airline and the departure boards were operated by Newark airport’s Port Authority.

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What would you do at this point? I think that most people would drop the matter. After all, I wouldn’t make the same mistake again and it would require work to bother contacting the Port Authority. But I have a special motive for pursuing the matter. I study cultural evolution and it bothers me that something so monumentally stupid can persist. This is precisely the sort of thing that cultural evolution is supposed to weed out.

Consider that almost anything would be better than the current arrangement. Best would be to list the terminal and gate for flights leaving from all terminals (I hasten to add that both of my flights were on the same airline). Next best would be to list only the flights leaving from a given terminal, which would have prompted me to leave terminal C in search of my flight. But to list flights leaving from other terminals without providing any other information is just %&$#@* stupid. I can’t be the only one to infer that the gate has not yet been assigned (as stated on my ticket) and that the information will be forthcoming.

Consider further that millions of people flow through the Newark Airport every year and that airport personnel who do not work for the Port Authority hear the same story again and again. Even if the average person can’t be bothered to take action, shouldn’t there be even one or two Dudley Do-Rights? And how about the people who do work for the Port Authority? Don’t they ever visit their own airport, if only as travelers?

Finally, when you’re an evolutionist, you know that some stupid things persist because they are somehow connected to sensible things (in evolutionary parlance, they are maladaptive byproducts of adaptations). But I can’t think of any reason why something as stupid as what I experienced should persist for that reason. What on earth could it be connected to?

So I am going to pursue the matter, not because I’m an altruist (I am, but I have much better ways to direct my altruistic impulses) but because I’m itching to know why something so monumentally stupid isn’t weeded out.

To be continued…

6 Comments

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6 Comments

  1. Richard says:

    My hunch is either an antiquated poorly-coded software system that either is too difficult/expensive to change or the Port Authority isn’t incented to change or lazy operators whom the Port Authority isn’t incented to improve.

    Ultimately, it comes down to incentives. What reason does the Port Authority have to improve? They are essentially a monopoly in this area.

  2. Michael Finfer, MD says:

    There’s a smart phone app, Airport Zoom, that would have solved that issue. It shows departures for all three terminals, and you can sort by city or departure time.

    It also has nice things like terminal maps so you can find restaurants and stuff.

  3. J. E. Lane says:

    Let me pre-empt, if I may, the conclusion to this post. I do so because I have a few questions that myself and many others would like answered:
    How would one even propose a systematic and practical approach to cultural evolution? Would it be done by centralizing the authority and deciding what is and isn’t the most fit solution from there? Who decides what is the best solution, and how does one weed out the cultural variants that aren’t wanted?
    Sadly, it seems, these questions were already asked and experimented on throughout history, and the answer is inevitably that one can not, and should not, under any circumstances, leverage evolution to shape “culture” to their will. Given what we know from the past, It has not and will not ever end well. I am yet to see a *new* answer concerning how one can apply these principles without creating a system that allows for catastrophic mistakes.

  4. There is a considerable literature on that firms which face potential bankruptcy are more efficient than government provision. (With firms in highly regulated industries, the results are less clear.) There is nothing surprising in this except you are surprised.

    For a useful starting point, see Murray J. Horn, “The Political Economy of Public Administration: Institutional Choice in the Public Sector”, Cambridge University Press, 1995. Dr Horn served as Secretary of the Treasury in New Zealand (that’s the senior public servant, not the minister), though that is the book of his PhD thesis.

  5. AlanE says:

    The Social Evolution Forum – Cultural Evolution in action.

    To my mind cultural evolution has increasingly been more dependent on the evolution of tools than on genetics. In particular the inter person communication tools:

    100,000 (?) years ago human communication by speech was just taking off
    20,000 (?) years ago language was just taking off
    2,000 (?) years ago written language was just taking off
    200 years ago postal mail was just taking off
    20 years ago the internet was just taking off
    10 years ago social media was really taking off
    2 years ago (?) the Social Evolution Forum was just taking off
    2 days ago David didn’t have the idea for this post
    2 hours ago I hadn’t even seen this post

    How will this evolve next? How will what evolve? David’s Newark Airport crusade* or my communications tools thoughts?. I can read about the airport progress here if I’m interested but my thoughts . . .

    . . . to consider inter person human communication from a cultural evolution perspective, from MY point of view, I’d like to research the evolution of some of the key tools that I think are influential in cultural evolution today:

    Language (British English for me) with a focus on Etymology.
    Written language with a focus on trying to emphasise with who wrote it (Emphalogy?)
    Information Technology and the Internet (to try to understand who wrote what and why).

    But as I write this post my thoughts are ever increasing in scope. Right now I’m thinking about mass communication as opposed to inter person communication and the appropriate communications tools:

    Stories (and song and dance) – through repetition
    Religious stories – through repetition and ritual
    Religious teachings – through churches, mosques, etc
    Copying of writing
    Printing
    Radio
    TV
    The Internet

    and now my mind is on to travel as well! Much too broad a scope and out of all proportion to the original Newark Airport thought. Enough for here I think!

    Alan E Locke

    *I am aware that “crusade” may not be politically correct any more. But it was O.K. for me to use not long ago. Hence my interest on a focus on English Etymology. So is “crusade” an awful or an awesome choice in this context? My humble apologies if I should offend anyone – the offence isn’t intended.

  6. bharshaw says:

    A SWAG: once upon a time there was only one terminal. The display combined a feed of flight data from each airline with a feed of terminal assignment data from the authority. When they added another terminal, the feed of flight data required no change for the second set of displays. However, the simplest way to set up the terminal management structure was just to clone the system already in place for the original terminal (A) for terminal B. Yes, they could have constructed an overall database which the displays could show, but there seemed no pressing need, perhaps because each airline operated from only one terminal. So someone on the same airline didn’t need data from the other terminals; someone transferring between airlines would naturally check the other terminals. When airlines started to use multiple terminals, there’s no feedback system to catch the problem.