Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Letter of Comment
    — Swarm Theory

I sent this letter to National Geographic regarding their July 2007 article on “Swarm Theory”:
I was very interested on the article on Swarms in the July 2007 issue of National Geographic.  I immediately thought of three places where swarm theory works for humans:
  • Consider crossing a street: tasks include wait for the light, cross at a reasonable pace, don’t jostle others, and avoid colliding with those coming the other way.  Especially interesting is how the crowd shuffles about, deciding whether to break out before the light changes.
  • Or at a concert where there are no assigned seats: sit close to the stage, sit close to the exit (or concessions, or the bathroom), sit with friends, sit far enough away from your neighbors.
  • And on the dance floor: don’t collide with others, keep the beat, move in the right direction, keep the right pace.  (And for some, “have fun” and “innovate” are tasks that should be included.)
Also of interest, though understated in the article, is the idea that we can predict what the swarm will do.  Any individual may vary behavior or break out, but as a group, the actions are roughly predictable based on known inputs.  For fans of science fiction, this is the basis of Isaac Asimov’s “predict the future” science of psychohistory.  We’re still a long way from the stuff Asimov wrote about, but the first step is recognizing that in the big, big picture, masses of humanity aren’t any different from a swarm of ants or a herd of caribou.

Update on December 18, 2009
The letter was not published in the magazine.

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