As I was thinking about the coordinated actions of many, I remembered reading about swarms many years ago – the idea of distributed, collective intelligence. It was this 2001 article from Harvard Business Review that had interested me in swarms. An excerpt: “Consider termites. Individually, they have meager intelligence. And they work with no supervision. Yet collectively they build mounds that are engineering marvels, able to maintain ambient temperature and comfortable levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide even as the nest grows. Indeed, for social insects teamwork is largely self-organized, coordinated primarily through the interactions of individual colony members. Together they can solve difficult problems (like choosing the shortest route to a food source from myriad possible pathways) even though each interaction might be very simple (one ant merely following the trail left by another). The collective behavior that emerges from a group of social insects has been dubbed “swarm intelligence.””
In other words, ‘spontaneous order’ or ‘emergent order’.
More from Wikipedia: “Swarm intelligence (SI) is the collective behaviour of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial. The concept is employed in work on artificial intelligence. The expression was introduced by Gerardo Beni and Jing Wang in 1989, in the context of cellular robotic systems. SI systems consist typically of a population of simple agents … interacting locally with one another and with their environment. The inspiration often comes from nature, especially biological systems. The agents follow very simple rules, and although there is no centralized control structure dictating how individual agents should behave, local, and to a certain degree random, interactions between such agents lead to the emergence of “intelligent” global behaviour, unknown to the individual agents.”
Another example that is instructive is John Conway’s Game of Life. The rules are simple. Order emerges but the outcome of the playing of the game is hard to predict. The outcome is not determined by any subset of the players of the game but from the interactions of all of the players.
The HBR article summarised the key attributes of swarms: “flexibility (the colony can adapt to a changing environment), robustness (even when one or more individuals fail, the group can still perform its tasks), and self-organization (activities are neither centrally controlled nor locally supervised).”
In politics, the recent examples of the Tea Party in the US and Occupy Wall Street movements come to mind – largely leaderless swarms of people coordinating action to achieve a specific purpose. Digital tools have amplified the power of individuals to come together. Hierarchies of WhatsApp and Signal groups, Twitter accounts, Facebook messages, online bulletin boards like Reddit can now supercharge message distribution and engagement to reduce latency between ideas and actions.
There is one important difference between the behaviour of termites and swarms, and on the other hand that of the farmers’ and Wall Street groups’ actions. The former don’t have a defined specific purpose or goal; the latter have a goal that clearly motivates them to act.