10/14/2013 02:07 EDT | Updated 12/14/2013 05:12 EST

What I Learned This Week: Left To Do Right

I've been doing a lot of flying in and out of Toronto recently, and using the city's convenient two-pronged Billy Bishop downtown island airport almost exclusively to do so.

For those who have never been there, the efficient airport's pint-sized landing strip and operational centre is separated from its entrance/exit point on the city's lakeshore by a small strip of water. To traverse from one to the other requires a relatively pleasant two-minute trip on a ferry (the city is now building an underground walkway as a ferry alternative, but that doesn't change the point of this blog post). And to control the foot traffic on the island structure, upon disembarking the ferry, people are greeted by the sign pictured below.


Now, at peak hours, the sign is totally irrelevant as the lineup of people hugging the windows waiting to board the ferry stretches seemingly forever, thus blocking any attempt of anybody even trying to veer right.

But at off-peak hours, where the hallway is basically bare, the sign serves as the impetus for a fascinating social experiment.

Here's what I mean. The past four times I exited the ferry to catch a flight out of Billy Bishop, I witnessed the exact same behaviour of my fellow passengers:

The flow of people blatantly ignored the sign, kept right instead of left, and made their way to the ticket counter/security check area.

So what does one make of this?

On one hand, when given the choice, people seemed to want to "break the rules" and thumb their nose at authority by going right instead of left...even when there is no advantage whatsoever in doing so. No shortcut, no better scenery, no nothing.

However, in going right, they acted as sheep, following each other almost mindlessly after someone's initial digression. The end result is that in making a statement of individuality by ignoring the sign and "going against the grain," they were making an equal statement of conformity by doing the exact same thing as everyone else.

What I really wanted to see, and what I suppose pure mathematical statisticians might suggest should happen, was a left/right coin toss mix of badasses, law-abiders, conformists and nonconformists, with approximately 50 per cent of people going one way and 50 per cent going the other.

But the resulting "all-in" traveler flow is a microcosm, I guess, of a society that rapidly tires of the norm, waits for someone to deviate from it, then follows said deviation virally to rapidly create a new norm.

Repeat ad nauseam and voila -- you have a cycle of obedient disobedience.

Ultimately, this paradox may not be a bad thing, as it spawns new business opportunities, creates new trends and cultural icons, and makes people feel rebellious while really playing it safe.

But for someone like me, it creates nothing but disturbing internal conflict and a painful dilemma. Waiting what seemed like forever at the fork-in-the-road juncture marked by the aforementioned sign, I pondered my next move.

  • Do I follow the crowd right and become just another "one of them"?
  • Do I break rank and strike a blow for individualism by going left?
  • But if I did that, would I not just be some spineless milquetoast, some trained dog, unquestioningly just doing what I'm told?

In the end, I ended up quiet and alone. Everyone in the flow had moved on.

So...I looked around, made sure no one was watching, knocked over the sign with a clank, and with a maniacal laugh, took off and ran like hell!