12 August 2011

#LondonRiots, @BbcCode, @MarcusDuSautoy and the Stoopid of Crowds

There has been a huge amount of drivel written and spoken about the
recent riots in England (funny - they are calling them "UK Riots" now,
but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seem miraculously spared).
It's all supposed to be down to this government or that government or
social inequality or absent fathers or police brutality or base
criminality or some such horseshit. Don't get me wrong - some of those
may be enabling factors that need addressed, but focusing on these
issues alone is missing the elephant in the room. That elephant is the
behaviour of people when they are in groups.

In the BBC documentary series "The Code", presented by Marcus du
Sautoy (sorry for the earlier twitterification of everything, but you
may want to follow Marcus!), there is a really fascinating sequence
involving starling flocks in Denmark. This enormous flock of birds
behaves almost as a single vast organism, and you'd think it needs a
vast controlling intelligence to make it move. However, the rules
governing the behaviour of a flock are surprisingly simple - indeed
spectacularly so. All each individual starling needs to do is keep an
eye on it seven nearest neighbours, and match what they do - speed,
direction, etc, and avoid predators. The behaviour of the huge group
emerges from those simple rules - complexity emerging from deep
simplicity. It turns out that humans are really no different - our
incredibly complex behaviour is the result of very simple rules.

So how do we apply this to the utter arsebiscuits that went on in
London? Is it a disaffected generation venting its social isolation,
or is it something a lot more simple than that? Is the looting and
rioting any different *really* to the banking crisis or MPs' expenses?
I would suggest that they are all *precisely* the same phenomenon.
Here's why. A store gets broken into. Some people (Bad People) start
taking things from the store. Other people see this and think: hey,
it's unfair that they should be able to get stuff that I can't. I'll
go and take something too. Someone else sees this, and breaks into
another store for the same reason, and so on and so forth. It is the
perception that members of your peer group are getting things that
you're not. You feel disadvantaged, not because of social ills, but
merely due to the fact that by holding back, you're missing an
opportunity. So you join in the group behaviour. No complex
co-ordination - just group behaviour. Morality, after all, is a social
contract, and if you feel that the rules have shifted (rightly or
wrongly), you are more likely to join in the "new" rules, rather than
stand back and take a good look.

And in the midst of all this, this is the realisation that society
needs to deal with. In crowds, people can do astonishingly stupid and
immoral things. If we want to prevent rioting and looting, we need to
acknowledge this, and develop strategies for applying it, instead of
wringing our hands and indulging in the sort of self-righteous
angstgasms that have coruscaded over the media and Twitter the last
few days.


  1. I have seen enormous starling flocks in Stranraer too, sometime in the winter 10 or 20 years ago. The first time I saw them I was on the ferry (in the days of the Antrim Princess and the Darnia) waiting to depart. I was just amazed and wondered what on earth this incredible swirling cloud could be. Somehow I found out before the second 'revelation' and enjoyed it all the more.

    Another uniquely English phenomenon seems to be that we have almost no starlings these days. When I grew up in Yorkshire they were almost a pest. These days here in Oxon they are almost exotic (in ones and twos).

    What a shame that these bands of opportunist youths can't find a more constructive way to be exotic collectively.

  2. So - to be clear - David Cameron should be introducing more starlings into our cities?

    Or less?

  3. Hang on - this is like an episode of Numbers, when Charlie explains how the FBI can catch serial killers by looking at how snakes manipulate probabilities to catch prey...chase scenario thingies.

    So, what we need are better, smarter predators to chase the starlings away from the shops? So, we could change how the police operate. Or introduce African Wild Dogs into city centres.

    I vote the latter. Watch them hoodies run...

  4. Well, I think the starling demise might have more to do with that lemming equation than anything else - numbers can vary greatly from year to year. Apart from the flocking behaviour (which is way cool), they're shitty vermin of the skies. We have a clatter of them nesting in a blocked drainpipe at the side of our garage (which is why it's blocked), and although I was a bit of an ornithologist in my youth, I hate 'em.

    And, Mr Veale, as a teacher you should know. It's FEWER!

  5. "In crowds, people can do astonishingly stupid and immoral things. If we want to prevent rioting and looting, we need to
    acknowledge this, and develop strategies for applying it..."

    Even thought it goes against my ideas of free association, I do think the time has now come for these Bankers, MPs, Media tycoons and global Corporatists from freely associating with each other either real or virtually.