The Nature of the Order

by Russ Roberts on November 8, 2006

in Complexity & Emergence

I recently encouraged you to check out this site as a beautiful example of spontaneous order. (And if you have a slower connection to the internet, you might try this version.) What you’ll see is a visual representation of air traffic in the United States over the course of the day, using FAA data. It’s really magnificent. Comments to that post make it clear to me that there is some confusion over what I had in mind when I called the result orderly.

I didn’t mean that any one flight is spontaneous. And of course, the overall pattern of commercial air traffic is managed rather than spontaneous. The orderly part comes from the visual image that emerges and the implications of that images. Each flight is represented as an animated path of light between the departure city and the destination city. The visual image that results is an illuminated map of the United States. The borders of the country emerge and then cities even though no boundary or city is shown explicitly. The animation also evolves over time. At first, you see only darkness. Then the East Coast becomes illuminated and the light moves west as the sun rises across the country. Then Hawaii is lit up with planes going and leaving there. And at the end of the day, the last red-eye flights head westward from California.

The flights around the country aren’t random. They spring out of population density and the routes people want to travel. These are the source of the order and its visual representation. What you’re seeing is a visual representation of the market for air travel and its service of its customers.


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