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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Human Swarm

What is the world population? A quick Google search turns up one estimate of... 6.69 billion around 2008. (6,875,900,000 from a Wiki for a more current figure.) This is a huge figure. Understandably, the world's a big place. But just try to conceptualize that for a minute. The population of New York City is just above 8 million. Larger still is Tokyo with somewhere around 35 million. (Both from Wiki entries) The world population in 'quantities of New York City' would be ~859. Or  perhaps ~196 Tokyos.

So there are a lot of us. How many people do you really encounter in a day though? 50? 100? Depends on your line of work or study I guess. Heres an interesting concept though: the six degrees experiment. This study goes on to say that everyone in the world is no more than 6 "social links" away from anyone else. Pretty wild. But take that with a grain of salt, as it doesn't necessarily hold up everywhere... but consider the statement it makes. We're all interconnected. Most everyone will agree with this statement in some form or another.

So there are a lot of us, and we're all connected. So what? This concept starts to set into motion the idea that with this interconnectedness, we start to coordinate our actions, and on a large scale too just because there are so many of us. We can collaborate and share and interact in a big way in this age. In sticking with the earlier examples of swarms, is there any behavior that society exhibits as a whole that may be considered emergent? (Hit up my course research page for more information on this particular idea. :) Heres a thought: Wikipedia. I've provided links to different articles all over this blog. How is it organized? Who contributes? (Do the terms "decentralized" and "self-organized" apply here?)

So, as it turns out, groups of humans can be organized into swarms of different sizes. Each behaves in its own way depending on situation, group composition, etc. In one of the links in the first entry on this blog, there is an NPR discussion on a book concerning some of the swarm characteristics of human networks. (I'd recommend this book, even, for a light, entertaining read concerning the subject.) The author lists some interesting rules that might help an individual act in a swarm (group) of humans:

  • "If you want to give yourself the best chance of choosing the very best option in a situation [that] doesn't allow you to go back to the options you have rejected, look at 37 percent of those available, then choose the next one that is better than any of them. This will give you a 1 in 3 chance of finding the best option, and a very high chance of finding one in the top few percent. [...]" (Fisher, 2009, p. 168)
  • "If you are in a crowd in a dangerous situation, use a mixed strategy for escape; follow the crowd 60 percent of the time, and spend the other 40 percent searching out escape routes on your own." (Fisher, 2009, p. 168)
  • "When planning a complicated road trip across a city, build in as many right turns as possible (or left turns if you happen to be in a country with left-hand drive." (Fisher, 2009, p. 169)
... incidentally, UPS follows this last rule when planning routes. (Various, heres one source

More fun links:
If you like this topic but aren't into humans (Robot Swarms):

A directory of resources on the subject:

Some weighty reading if the subject really interests you:
New Models for Crowd Dynamics and Control:

Particle swarm optimization:

Bibliographical Info:
Fisher, Len. (2009). The Perfect Swarm. New York: Basic Books.

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