Swarm Thickness

Most people following this blog will be familiar with the notion of ‘swarm intelligence’. So here’s a question … Could ‘swarm thickness’ be a thing? (Seriously!)

Swarm Intelligence (SI) shows itself all over the place in nature and discussion goes back at least as far as Darwin. Through SI, birds and fish maintain apparently impossibly coordinated formations, ants find the best path to food and bees and termites build complex structures to name just a few examples.

The essence of SI is a wonderfully simple one. Individuals do the most basic of operations, follow the crudest of directives or instincts but the cumulative effect for the flock, shoal, colony or hive is something magnificently clever.  They’re guided, by something they don’t understand, to play a small part in something good.

You can probably see where we’re going here … Could humans be doing this the other way around?  Could we, guided by something we don’t understand, be playing a small part in something awful?

To try to get some clues, let’s look at SI in a bit more detail with some examples (all simplified):

  • Murmuration in birds isn’t entirely understood yet but the best guess is that each bird is simply (but incredibly quickly) following a basic ‘move towards neighbour’ instinct. (Compare with some of the original programming for the turtle in Logo.)
  • Ants initially wander around fairly aimlessly but are attracted to pheromone deposits of other ants. As ants that find food quickly lay down stronger pheromone trails, the colony eventually develops a network of best paths.
  • Bees seem to be fundamentally programmed to build honey walls in straight lines or circles (it’s still disputed) and maybe they turn when they hit other ants or the pressure of touching circles creates hexagons. Either way, the result is a beautiful, geometrically perfect honeycomb.
  • And, of course, and the reason this is interesting in a computing sense, is that algorithmists have successfully incorporated these ideas into many areas of problem-solving and optimisation, in which SI is programmed as a solution.

Now, there are crucial (linked/overlapping) observations here:

  1. [We already know this one] The result of the group acting together is altogether ‘bigger’ than the actions of the individuals,
  2. The ‘actions’ and the ‘outcome’ are on entirely different conceptual levels,  [individuals are controlled by ‘nature’, ‘agents’ are programmed, etc.]
  3. Although (at least in nature) individuals can presumably observe the result of their actions, it’s unlikely they can understand how their instinctive actions have lead to the outcome,
  4. Similarly, in the process of carrying out their instinctive actions, individuals are probably unaware of where they’re leading or why or how. Or, really, this is beyond their individual understanding (or ability to understand).
  5. There’s probably also some sort of ‘critical mass’ in terms of numbers to make this happen.  A few ants wouldn’t optimise paths; half a dozen bees wouldn’t make honeycomb; twenty starlings don’t make for an impressive murmuration, and so on.
  6. The ‘bigger picture’ of what’s going on can only be understood at an entirely higher level – by a more sophisticated observer (‘Mother Nature’, God, a programmer, etc.) able to deconstruct the process at all levels.

So, to summarise, individuals work to simple individual rules, not understanding what the end result will be; and, to an extent, they can’t.

And, by and large in nature, the end result is pretty cool.

But could nature (or whatever) be working the other way around for humans?  Could humans be programmed (by nature) to do incredibly clever things individually but ultimately stupid things in groups?

No, that probably doesn’t work in those simple terms.  By and large, humans do better things and solve even harder problems when they work together.  And yet, you can see what we’re getting at here.  Globally, is the human race about to do itself in through its collective stupidity?  Perhaps through its ill-considered development of technology and its destruction of its own environment?  Perhaps then, there’s some limit beyond which human groups do more harm than they do good?  That would make this Swarm Thickness (ST) concept consistent with SI.  We’ll park that for now, mark it, and come back to it …

We could perhaps try to construct some sort of theory on this basis – or something else – but, re-reading the observations above, if we’re anything like the birds or the bees (or the fish or the ants), the exact system we’re following might be beyond our understanding.  That might only be visible to a higher entity.  But, in essence, just as the bees pootle around being thick, then stand back and think, ‘WOW! (Look what we’ve done!)’, we scurry around being all clever, then stand back and think, ‘OH SHIT! (Look what we’ve done!)’.  (Except not enough of us are doing that yet?)

At some level, beyond our understanding, is human society doomed by the laws of nature?

Well, if it is, then by definition, it might seem foolish – and ill-fated – to speculate on why that might be.  After all, we’ve just implied we probably can’t understand it.

And yet, just as the bees might be aware that they’re doing something cool – even if they’ve no idea how, we can probably see that we’re heading for disaster even if we’re not entirely sure what, or how, or why … or have much of a plan as to what to do about it.

So, perhaps paradoxically, we should look towards something we already don’t entirely understand?  (Well, most of us think we do but, collectively, we argue about it so, in the context of this discussion, we probably don’t!)

Exactly what capitalism is, how and why it persists and prevails, and where it’s taking us are all – to a greater or lesser extent – unresolved questions/arguments (well, maybe not the last one: only the densest of us are still having trouble with that).  Is capitalism a stupid, inherently unstable system – artificially propped up by a small elite, managing and manipulating resources, division and conflict – or is it a natural (and unshakably stable) feature of human society – ‘there’s a little bit of capitalism in all of us’ – and it somehow just survives everything that’s thrown at it?

The first model gives us a fighting chance.  But the second looks grimly fatal.  Of course, the truth might lie on some spectrum between.  However, if there’s any truth in the general principle that capitalism just happens when you put two or more people together in a room, then we might be up against it.  Add to that its apparent natural defence mechanisms that pop up as needed to quash any threats and perhaps there’s something in this.  Put simply, we know capitalism’s going to kill us but we don’t really know if we can stop it.  Obviously, the second question is critical but, just for once, we’re going to focus on the first point: how the hell (and why) did we get ourselves into this mess?

Let’s attempt a crude breakdown of some of the key points.  (Yes, this analysis is flawed: it couldn’t be anything else on such a grand scale but it’s the general point rather than precise figures that matter … AND DO note the point in the final paragraphs of this piece)

  1. When did capitalism start?  This is probably too complex a question to answer – possibly even ask.  There’s way too much ‘well, it depends what you mean’ involved throughout.  Some simple elements of capitalism have been with us almost from the word go.  Systems of exchange have existed for thousands of years and are referenced in most sacred texts.  And although some histories would place ‘modern’ capitalism as showing itself around the 16th or 17th centuries, even that was nothing like we have today in global terms.  But, ‘for the purposes of illustration’, accepting the 16th or 17th centuries as being a significant period, or unpicking the Solidarity Federation’s timeline on the subject, gives us a (yes, utterly spurious) working date of 1600.
  2. What’s the ideal global human population?  This is also pretty tricky because it’s subjective and it very much depends not only on who you ask, but what you ask.  The Earth could perhaps support 10 billion or so humans if we play our cards right.  Taking a human-centric view of the ‘ideal’ number suggests one to two billion.  Colleagues more concerned with global species as a whole, with less of a human focus, would rather there were only about 50-100 million humans in the world.  (So the population of the UK spread out across the planet.)  Playing around with these figures on a spreadsheet and taking an average gives a rough (and equally spurious) ‘ideal’ human population of say half a billion.  (interestingly, this is probably in the ballpark area of ape/monkey populations before we set about buggering up the planet for them.)
  3. How has human population increased over the years?  We can do better here with more exact figures.  Leading up to biblical times, we hit the anthropologist’s 100 million.  We passed through the human-centric 1-2 billion between 1800 and 1900.  Somewhere between those two periods would be the point at which we reached the ‘ideal’ (from 2).  When was that?  1600 as it turns out!  (From 1)

Isn’t that amazing?  Capitalism began when the human population exceeded its ideal!!  What a great theory!!  Now back to reality …

OK, these figures are just for illustration – no,  worse than that; they’ve been contrived to make a point!  Yes, of course they have.  They’re not intended to be definitive; they’re just to get a general idea across.  The point is, whatever figures you chose, the lines on the graph cross somewhere.  If nature’s taken a hand in human affairs, it may have been (pre-emptively) in advance of the ideal (whatever that is) being reached or (more desperately) some time after.  Capitalism didn’t start on a particular date in history either: it evolved from disparate threads over time.  Nor has global population increased uniformly across the planet.  We’re not looking at a convenient intersection here: more of an overlap.  (And remember, by definition, we might not be able to really understand this fully anyway.)  The detail’s not the point.  It’s the principle

Because a working theory, with all the spurious figures removed, might be this …

At some point in the past, humans – clever beasts on their own and even cleverer in small groups – reached some critical population level at which they became a liability to the rest of life on Earth.  At this point, nature sought to implement a form of reverse swarm intelligence to the race.  This ‘swarm thickness’ (ST: probably in the form of capitalism or its derivatives) causes simple individual behaviours (competition, selfishness, etc.) to combine towards catastrophic collective behaviour, precipitating the demise of (or at least massive reduction in) the species.  The full mechanics of this process may be beyond our understanding and the inevitable, disastrous results remain(ed until it was too late) largely obscured by immediate examples of technological advancement, transient improvements to ‘quality of life’, etc. (and, of course, individual gain).

Now, of course, having now thrown that out there, there are endless loose ends to tie up.  Unlikely that we’ll get them all here but we’ll have a look at some of the more obvious ones …

In the simple overview above, it’s unlikely that nature simply ‘kicked in’ when it needed to.  More likely, the capitalist behaviour was genetically programmed into each of us to develop and increase in collaboration with other humans as populations increased.

So what happens when the results of swarm thickness kick in (in the sense of the damage caused by capitalism being obvious to everyone)?  Will the human race be wiped out entirely or merely be reduced to sustainable levels.  We may not be able to answer that until we see for ourselves.  It would have to be something pretty all-encompassing for it to be the former but there are such scenarios.

Now, you might be saying that there’s an element of the obvious about this.  All natural populations are regulated by their surroundings.  When a population exceeds its sustainability (access to resources), it naturally contracts again by necessity.  But that’s not what we’re talking about here.  Swarm thickness, through the agency of capitalism, adds to the underlying natural processes in at least two senses:

    1. We’re not talking about external factors here; crucially, we’re doing this to ourselves.
    2. The results may be catastrophic, not merely limiting.  The approaching meltdowns (technological ineptitude and/or climate damage) won’t just restrict or reduce the human population; they will destroy most of it.
    3. This catastrophe won’t wait until we’ve reached the natural limit of available resources.  It’s estimated that the planet can sustain a few billion more of us yet but swarm thickness – through capitalism – is already kicking in now.

In fact, it doesn’t have to be explicitly capitalism that’s the mechanism … although it’s likely to be one of its derivatives: ‘personal freedom’, for example.  (‘Don’t you go telling me I can’t eat meat, drive a big car, fly off on holiday, … , just so my kids can live long enough to reach adulthood! That’s communism, that is. You’ll have to find another way … Surely the markets will regulate themselves eventually?)  Remember, just like swarm intelligence, swarm thickness requires simple elements of dedicated behaviour from all of us … or at least enough of us.  (As the great Ghost Mice said – House on Fire‘We’re all slaves to the things we own’/’We know we are owned by our own liberties’.)  Perhaps we’re just going to ‘freedom’ ourselves to bloody death?

But why not just disease then?  Why would nature need something this clever (thick) when it could just wipe us out with a virus?  Well, perhaps because that wouldn’t work on the necessary scale.  In fact, there have been serious epidemics over the centuries but – as horrific as they’ve been – they’ve only seen off a small percentage of the population each time.  Also, if there we’re to be a catastrophic human epidemic in future, on a much larger scale than anything that had gone before, then our susceptibility to it would almost certainly be due to some capitalism-inspired negligence: genetic modification, biological resistance, etc.  Capitalism would still be the vector: our collective stupidity would still be the cause.

But why would nature do this at all?  Why not just wait for the limiting effects of resource depletion?  Well, perhaps because, by the time we get there, we’ll have utterly shafted all the other species by what we’ve done to the planet.  Perhaps nature has done this to us to protect the rest.  (Remember, if we stay faithful to the original swarm concept, we can’t perhaps expect to understand this fully ourselves.)

Finally, if you really want to see how powerful capitalism’s hold is, just take a look at the criticism articles like this attract and the dodgy logic that follows.  There’s overwhelming evidence that capitalism is going to destroy the planet (in far more credible outlets than this one) but, if you don’t want to believe that, then fine: it goes like this …

  • “Did you see what that bloke said about capitalism destroying the planet?”
  • “Yes, but some of the figures we’re made up.”
  • “Oh, right; and, of course, socialism doesn’t work does it?”
  • “Course not: it’s been tried.”
  • “And failed.”    [Yes, when the rest of the capitalist world piled in on it!]
  • “So nothing to worry about then?”
  • “Nope, we’re good.”

Classically-flawed reverse logic.  Find an argument that’s trying to make a point. Find a flaw. Hey Presto! Can’t be true. [Ignore all other arguments.]

With capitalism about to kill us all, head-in-the-sand crap like ‘Yeah, but Stalin …’, etc. really doesn’t cut it.  We really have to do better than that to have any chance.

If this swarm thickness really is irreversibly programmed into us humans then, OK yes, we’re utterly ***ked.  But, if somehow, the true explanation of capitalism is not quite at the hard ‘naturally stable’ end of the spectrum, then we owe it to our kids and grandkids to have a go.

Otherwise, not only are we going to ‘stupid’ ourselves into (near) extinction, we’ll probably along the way blame just about everything else we can think of – including each other and mostly the people trying to help – except the real culprit!

About Vic Grout

Chair, Clwyd South Labour Party; Professor of Computing Futures, Wrexham Glyndwr University View all posts by Vic Grout

2 responses to “Swarm Thickness

  • James Cross

    Capabilities like SI have an evolutionary history. They evolve because they enhance survival under a set of conditions. But they are often shortcuts or hacks, that is they are a set of simple rules which might not work if conditions change significantly.

    Humans coming out of Africa about 60-70K ago probably had some simple rules too. Hunt everything you can eat. Use it or lose it as far as resources are concerned. Kill anybody or group that doesn’t look or act like you. This must have worked well for a while.

    • Vic Grout

      Yes, I think that’s a succinct way of putting essentially a large part of what I was trying to say. Eventually, the simple programming turns against us. But, if there really is an intentional ‘self-destruct’ programmed in somewhere then that’s not evolutionary in the simple/obvious ‘survival of the species’ sense – quite the opposite in fact. If it’s really a thing then it’s working at a higher level.

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