The grass has been tread away to bare earth, flagging this as a path by definition. A path of mediocrity, a sort of best fit line, all origins and goals considered, for a diagonal across the science quad. However, this worn path is not the optimal solution for moving from the computing science building to the nearest train station entrance.
I’m not even certain I’ve taken the optimal exit from the CS building! And yet I keep taking this exit, day after day, because it is nearest the top of the stairs nearest the basement lecture hall door. This entrance through which I’d optimally entered only one and one half hours ago, to reach my subterranean goal, coming from an origin opposite in direction to my new goal, may not be an optimal exit. I’ve taken this exit before and found it not egregiously erroneous, and I greedily take it again and again, and yet I should, to ensure it is the optimal solution, take a moment to explore, not exploit. Learning each other exit’s value and updating my policy. When next I pass the CS building, on a different route, I ought to assess the set of possible exits from outside and use that model to refine the action set I might explore the next time I leave this class.
So today I walk this worn path. Conscientiously avoiding conspicuity. The true optimal path based upon my goal is a line near the worn path. Near enough that were I to walk it I fear I’d look like an asshole for not just walking on the worn path like everyone else!
Thankfully there is useful hedonic value, pleasure, in treading poetically upon autumn leaves atop still green grass. So, if this was another time, another day, and I were to walk my optimal path I would fixate upon this socially non-perturbative autumn pleasure, and not that of optimality. People are willing to accept playfulness, I think, over the implications of haste (which would likely cause sympathetic stress). It is a pleasure I would enjoy vicariously, watching someone else walking in the leaves. I could use it as scapegoat for my greedy action, drawing attention away from my desired pleasure of walking the optimal solution (in which I invariably appear arrogant or harried). So to all concerned if I pretend the smile upon my face and the way I choose to move along this near-the-worn-path path is for playful, aesthetic reasons then I am less affronting than without a mask, focused solely on the goal-driven pleasure of least-distance optimality (which would demand onlookers to judge their suboptimal paths or slow gates and, threatened, begrudgingly make changes to their vector or belittle me in my optimal action choice).
Others are taking even more suboptimal paths because those paths have been paved. They roughly border the buildings, avoiding hills and obstacles (which could have been respectively regraded or removed during construction), and not intersecting the implied whole of the quad. They are neither the intentional paths of even approximate-optimality, nor of awareness and goal. And although they do sometimes overlap with those better paths, architecturally they wend in deviant ways uncharacteristic of the true optimal paths. This overlap appears more coincidental and inevitable than considered or intelligent. The arguable aesthetic benefit of the wending is minute. The wending is just apathetically lazy, not intentional, there is no suggestion of play nor pleasure. They are the paths of concrete form: directive and autocratic.
These Manhattan distance solutions are so aggravating. How is it the engineering and science students ever stoop to tread them? Are they not choosing? Just unmindfully following the paved paths? Following suboptimal least resistance? Why were the approximate-optimal worn paths not approximated from the world model and paved? The model of the world is known! We know if you place one building here and another there then there are straight lines between their points of exit and entry! And when there is no great aesthetic benefit to the Manhattan or wending paths, to keep the quad fundamentally a quad by not paving through it seems absurd. Unless the quad as a whole serves some higher purpose (if so, that philosophical ideal, that statement should be reinforced, as it is on the college greens at Cambridge, and not undermined, suffering the people making unpaved, approximations across its expanse). But perhaps since the quad as quad is historically relevant as a green-space they don’t pave the little paths that everyone walks anyhow. A green-space upon which the alumni and student associations place big white tents and fences without appearing to hamper the flow of people because they don’t straddle paved paths, when really they are blocking all the human paths, the ones that actually matter!
In the winter the humans wear paths down through the snow atop the unpaved ground, making it icy and treacherous. These paths should be marked and in spring the maximally worn paths should be paved and then in winters cleared, sanded and safe. In winter more than ever people want to get from A to B in such a way that their time spent in the cold is minimized. So the optimal approximate paths crisscross across the campus, highlighting and recording, even better than the worn turf, the true motion of the system’s agents and not that motion guided or implied by the low-resistance pavement.
But today I have no capacity left for more autonomous action and I default to the group norm. Despite knowing the correct answer I choose their’s: a popular, suboptimal approximation. A kind of catch-all, group path that doesn’t flounce its optimality. The worn, suboptimal path, the paved paths, suggest there may be things greater than asymptotic minimum-distance optimality. Things like walking with a friend who may be moving toward a similar goal but one ultimately inequivalent to your own. If you both take your respective optimal paths then you’re just a little too far apart to be close. It’s lonesome. If I take my optimal path, at the cost of experiencing this social pleasure when available, or the opportunity for it to occur when not, the mere appearance of autonomy instead of norm would have others attributing characteristics to me contrary to that of one who would value companionship over efficiency. Perhaps the optimal solution is to walk with a friend.
When I finally reach the train and board I’m faced with another dilemma. We stutter at the threshold of the door as we pull into our destination station. She’d made the first move. Toward the exit. But I’m taller, older, male, and the button is on my side. Who is the leader? I’d give her the right, but there is the unassailable logic of the button being on my side of the door. Yet there seems to already be a channel of energy connecting her to that button. And then there is my stereotypical leader alignment. But she is keen, she was there first, waiting. Who is going to push it when it lights up active? Our body language intimating increasing readiness. A dance, posturing, acquiescing. In the end she relinquishes control and I reach forward, albeit awkwardly, intentionally suggesting reluctancy or indicating that this was a compromise and not me asserting my dominance. I thumb the button and open the door. Then we have to walk up the stairs together to the surface. But we’d had an intimate conversation moments before. Now we’re just strangers.
And then, for the second time today, I see him. So obviously our schedules have some synchronicity. Not like that is an unusual thing given our age and urban context. But I think he’s wearing something different this time. So, you changed? We’ve both come from the University, again. So obviously we had both left and returned only to leave again, together, at the same time. So, you’re a block ahead. This time you didn’t see me early enough to walk on the opposite side of the street. Ha ha! You live in the unit below, across the landing. I think you are only peripherally conscious of me. That is, until you reach the door and flip your bag from your shoulders to reach your keys, same as I always do. So I slow and you hasten, ensuring a meeting doesn’t occur. Now I pause at the freshly shut door and give you time to get into your apartment. Then I open the door and stride up the half-flight of stairs, hearing your door close as I put my key in my lock. We should probably be friends. But we aren’t.