What the Flock is going on?

I’d like to write something today that is a little off topic to the rest of this blog about the recent riots in the UK [edit: and to a degree the ‘occupy wall street’ protests]. Theres four groups I need to identify, rioter, defenders, clean up crews, and the police. First we’ll start with the rioters. Whats unique with this group is the way its organised, traditionally a riot was closely associated to a protest thats got out of control. A protest has a cause and is organised by an group of individuals much like a corporate structure, ie a leader, managers, secretary, PR officials, etc. However what we are seeing in the UK is completely different. It’s seemingly senseless, and other than the Police/government theres no leaders, no infrastructure, no event organising, and for most no cause.

So what is going on? We often hear that these individuals are using social media and text messages to communicate, but how can a simple tweet or text cause such chaos? Lets look at the dynamics at play here;

  1. a large group of individuals are communicating with each other,
  2. each of the individuals have no idea of the big picture, ie there is no central control system.
  3. individuals react to the information it receives and to their immediate environment
  4. each individual relays messages to another in their social circle.
What we have just set up is an algorithm (or set of rules) for Flocking. Flocking can be seen in nature, as flocks of birds, schools of fish, or swarms of insects.
The interesting thing with Flocking is that a group of individuals appear to have a collective intelligence, like a flock of birds flying in formation, ants building a nest, or fish avoiding predators. In fact you could look at the human brain in the same way. Each cell is relatively simple, no one cell has any intelligence. There isn’t a brain cell in my head that knows what my favourite color is, they are simply reacting to signals feed to it by its neighbouring cells yet as collective they can store, retrieve, and communicate something as abstract as a desirable frequency of light that entered my eye. Not only that, but this can be communicated to another individual and they can store this information in there collection of cells.
With flocking each of the individuals are generally very simple minded, eg an ant, bird, fish, or a guy wanting a free 50 inch plasma tv however as a collective they can display complex behaviour. So is this what we are seeing in the UK? A collective intelligence capable of complex behaviour that can react to its physical environment. Text messages, tweets, facebook, etc are the catalyst for this behaviour as it achieves instant one to one, one to many and many to many communication. Setting up an incredibly complex algorithm for Flocking. In contrast traditional communication between individuals has been too slow or too limited for something like a spontaneous riot to form, eg news papers, phone calls, or screaming at the top of your lungs.
Whats interesting is it’s not just the rioters that are behaving like a flock, there are the people defending their neighbourhoods and there has even been spontaneous clean ups. But how do we control these seemingly organic collectives? This is where a lot of research needs to be done, not of the individuals but to how the collective reacts to its environment. What outside influences can re-divert the collective behaviour? With these current events we need to study what was being communicated between individuals and what effect that had on the bigger scale. It’s all very interesting and incredibly complex. Have a google about some of these concepts, I’m sure you’ll find more interesting facts on the topic.
Disclaimer, I don’t claim to be an anthropologist, psychologist or similar. The above needs further research and is based on my own general knowledge.

One Comment:

  1. Interesting way to view these events and in particular the manner of the communication and responses. The further research that you suggest might have to incorporate an understanding of cultural groups and subgroups and their behaviour in human society and the relationship between the various subgroups. Isn’t Flocking dependent on their being a unified group, rather than disparate groups “pulling in different directions”?

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