When is a queue not a queue?

October 1, 2007

The other day I found myself being reprimanded – ever so nicely – for queue jumping. I was heading for a specialized department in a London hospital. At the entrance to the building five people were standing around in no particular spatial configuration and clearly de-coupled from each other. The door was already open so clearly, they were not waiting to get through the door. Without thinking, I went through the door to look for the department that I had been referred to. One of the five people that had been hanging around outside came in after me and pointed out with some indignation that there was a queue and that he was first in line. I looked around. What line? I concluded that I was dealing with one of those metaphysical kinds of queue, one whose existence has to be inferred from a limited number of subtle and indirect signs, most of which are culture-specific – raised eyebrows, pursed lips, shouting, running at the queue jumper with a meat cleaver, etc. – rather than from direct observation. In such queues, one needs inside knowledge to figure out whether one is in or outside the line. Naïve empiricism has no purchase on this process.

Waiting for a London bus during rush hour separates the pros from the amateurs when it comes to queueing. With two or three people standing under the bus shelter on a dry day one can still get a sense of how the priority claims are distributed. But when it is raining hard and the number seeking the shelter rapidly increases, the priority claims get swept away in the downpour. The buses make their own unacknowledged contribution to this entropic process by typically stopping some fifteen yards away from the bus stop, thus precipitating an undignified zero-sum rush and upsetting whatever precariously balanced social arrangement had so far kept the peace between rival claimants. In this way bus drivers, in a bloody-minded demonstration of their negative power, helpfully get queues past the tipping point from civilized forms of waiting to chaos. You might have felt somewhat secure about your place in the queue while waiting for the bus, but hey, that was one minute ago and your social context has just undergone a phase transition.

In a fast-moving and globalizing world, a minute is becoming a long time in queuing.

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