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group think

sgs | academic | Friday, April 4th, 2008

Spring is here, and with spring comes:  sunshine, fresh flowers, … and a slew of navel-gazing, big-idea technology conferences. I recently returned from two such trend-spotting confabs: CI Foo Camp and ETech.

In format, the events were completely different. CI Foo Camp, organized by Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian and held on the Google campus, brought together 60 or so researchers all loosely connected to the idea of “collective intelligence” for a wide-ranging discussion with no set schedule. For ETech, O’Reilly’s flagship annual conference, several hundred hackers, academics, and online gadflies converged on San Diego for four days of presentations about anything deemed an emerging technology.

But what I distilled from the two conferences was very similar—the same topic kept coming up, over and over.  This emerging area doesn’t have a catchy moniker yet, but you can think of it as an amalgamation of crowd theory, human terrain mapping, and social simulation. It is the science of groups; it is a new kind of quantitative political science.

The tools and theories needed to analyze social interactions are just now reaching the level of sophistication — in accuracy, in robustness – necessary to leave the lab and enter commercial duty. We are in a period analogous to the early 1970s, when developments like the Capital Asset Pricing Model and the Black-Scholes equation transformed finance, changing it from an art to a science, and opening enormous new markets in the process. Now, new equations describing “crowd dynamics” are about to change our lives. And not always for the better. This is one of the most significant technology trends I have seen in years; it may also be one of the most pernicious.

To understand why this technology is so important, and so dangerous, you need to understand its patrimony. First, although the technology is brand new, the idea is a classic, long-time geek trope. It shows up, for example, in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, the best-selling albeit thinly-plotted space opera, in which protagonist Hari Seldon develops the science of “psychohistory”. According to Seldon, just as physics can predict the mass motion of a gas, even though any individual molecule is unpredictable, psychohistory allows us to predict the future of large groups of people. (It’s not hard to see why this sort of thing appeals to the socially maladroit. Forming cliques, establishing social ties– it’s complicated and messy stuff. If only there was a mathematics that laid it all out…)

But why is this technology only emerging now, not fifteen or twenty years ago? For any technology, there are only three possible answers to this question: Moore’s law, the Internet, or the government. In the case of crowd dynamics, we have the last two to thank. The Internet has made the problem tractable by providing huge, easily-collected data sets of social interactions. But the government has been the real enabler. Just follow the money: nearly every relevant research project received funding from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

It wasn’t long after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that US military theorists began to realize that our soldiers were completely lost amidst the country’s byzantine tribal structures, religious factions, and internecine feuds. They needed tools to help navigate these social structures that were as effective as their GPS devices and laser-designators were at guiding them through the local geography. DARPA moved quickly, creating a half-dozen social science programs, all of them focused on near-term research with mostly tangible deliverables. The mission became known as “human terrain mapping”, sure to be one of the most important neologisms of this decade.

It’s interesting, if unsurprising, that DARPA had focused on the social sciences only once before: in 1962, during the Vietnam War. That year, DARPA’s director testified to congress that “it is [our] primary thesis that remote area warfare is controlled in a major way by the environment in which the warfare occurs; by the sociological and anthropological characteristics of the people involved in the war.”  The most ambitious result of this view was called “Project Camelot”, described as an attempt to “develop a general social systems model which would make it possible to predict and influence politically significant aspects of social change in the developing nations of the world.” It’s unclear how much progress was made before, thanks to a poorly organized attempt at testing Project Camelot in Chile that was met with violent political protests and negative press domestically, McNamara canceled the program.

Cut to … San Diego, 2008, where the echoes of Project Camelot reverberated throughout an ETech presentation by Paul Torrens, a geography professor at Arizona State University.


Adapting 3D animation technology from video games, CG simulated crowds from movie special effects, and GIS systems from urban design, Mr. Torrens creates virtual worlds where autonomous agents can interact.

Each agent is built-up from many levels of rules: starting with basic kinematics (the hip-bone is connected to the …), then realistic physics (what happens when a body runs into a wall), then basic movement heuristics (take shortest route to exit), simple social behaviors (leave room if it gets too crowded), all the way up to sophisticated motivations (try to increase well-being by networking). Torrens has created a general toolkit that allows you to define these rules, then wind up your agents, plop them into a 3-D world, and let them run. By watching the results, says Torrens, we get a much better understanding of how crowds behave… and how to control them.

The first example Torrens showed was of hundreds of avatars trying to exit a building through a single doorway. In a process that resembles nothing so much as gas particles moving along a thermal gradient, the avatars egress is incredibly inefficient, with a major jam-up occurring right in front of the doorway.  “The system works far better when a column is introduced off-center in front of the door,” demonstrated Mr. Torrens. “It’s counterintuitive, but the column sends shock waves through the crowds to break up the congestion patterns.”

The next example was more disturbing. The scenario this time is a public demonstration, similar to the WTO protests that occurred in Seattle a few years ago. The model includes such details as tear gas which causes civilians to stampede, extremists who are trying to instigate violence, and mounted police. Torrens shows that changing a few small initial conditions controls whether the protest spins out of control or not, and suggests this simulation is a valuable tool for policing. Indeed. Demonstrating either startling ignorance or touching naïveté, Torrens argues that this scenario is really a public health issue, due to the possibility of injury. Well, yes – but, more importantly, it’s a democratic, human rights issue, and improving the state’s ability to squash demonstrations doesn’t strike me as a desirable development.

An equally disturbing presentation at ETech was from Nathan Eagle, an MIT Media Lab researcher. While Paul Torrens took a top-down approach, simulating theoretical behaviors to see what happens, Nathan Eagle comes at it from the opposite direction. He takes a huge volume of empirical data on individuals’ locations over time, and from that derives higher-level structures like affinity groups and schedules.

His dataset contains the proximity, location, and communication information from 100 subjects at MIT over the course of the 2004-2005 academic year.  From this fairly innocuous data, Eagle is able to figure out what groups individuals belong to. As he explains, “the clique on the top left of each network are the Sloan business students while the Media Lab senior students are at the center of the clique on the bottom right. The first year Media Lab students can be found on the periphery of both graphs.”


In one experiment, Eagle looked at how well he could predict an individual’s activities over a 12-hour period, based on their data from the previous 12-hours. After training a simple Hidden Markov Model, he could predict people’s behaviors with 79% accuracy. Additional experiments and results can be found at (Warning: may provoke morose thoughts about just how structured and undynamic our lives really are.)

Admittedly, not all the work in this area has quite as obviously sinister undertones as these two examples. Perhaps the most innocuous bit of crowd theory came – surprisingly? – from Microsoft, at a CI Foo Camp presentation by Eric Horvitz. He spoke about SmartPhlow, an extremely sophisticated traffic monitoring system they have been operating in Seattle since 2003. Besides the normal traffic monitoring functionality, their system can also predict traffic for any day in the future, based on sporting event schedules, holidays, planned maintenance, etc.  The system also has a notion of “surprise”: by modeling what a person is likely to know (eg, that the bridge is always backed up during rush hour), and comparing that to current conditions, the SmartPhlow system can inform you of only surprising developments.

Crowd dynamics are exploited by the system to gather data. For roadways where the DOT hasn’t installed car-counting sensors, the SmartPhlow system tries to contact users who are likely to be on that stretch of roadway at that particular time and asks them to enter their current speed. To avoid bothering an excessive number of users, SmartPhlow uses a model very similar to Nathan Eagle’s to predict user’s current locations.

Although not currently implemented, Eric Horvitz believes they can go one step further. Most traffic jams are emergent phenomena that begin with mistakes from just one or two drivers. According to Horvitz’s models, they can actually “un-jam” traffic by calling drivers at a particular location, and giving them very specific instructions: “Move to the left-most lane, and then speed-up to 65.”

These three examples are a start at mapping out the scope of the opportunity, and the potential for danger, posed by this new science of crowds. It’s important to remember that these examples are not truly representative: most of the work in the field has closer ties to military objectives, but that isn’t the kind of work that you’re apt to see at left-leaning conferences. (In general, the work is on higher level rules that define how insurgencies grow and that simulates the complex social substrate found in Iraq. The results of this work are already finding their way to US soldiers. ) I think it’s also important to keep in mind that the real danger with crowd theory has nothing to do with its ties to the military.

The notion that technology is somehow “neutral” was discredited long ago, but it seems to reemerge whenever someone dares declare a new technology harmful. To refresh: we now know that every technology has built-in biases; inherent aspects that make a technology better suited for certain contexts and applications. Because nuclear power, for example, requires enormous facilities operated by highly trained workers at great cost, it goes hand-in-hand with Big Government and a hierarchical society. A flatter culture, that is structured more like a distributed network, will find local energy sources like wind and solar more congenial.

I believe that crowd theory is inherently pernicious because it fundamentally relies on a simplified model of individual behavior.  I’m not saying these models aren’t useful, or don’t offer real predictive accuracy. They are and they do. But by treating people as statistical stick-figures, we cheapen ourselves and, somehow, become less human.


  1. DARPA is the back part of the particular spear. Working to make a mess little less so. The other technologies, when implemented will begin a whole new level of sport for the public. Like the popularity of “hoodies” in CCTV UK.

    Comment by Rodney — April 5, 2008 @ 2:05 am

  2. I seem to recall something from my neuropsychology class in college. A study showed that people think they are telling their arm to move, when electrical sensing of their nerve impulses and PET scanning or EEG or something (this is all out of my head from years ago) shows that they think about moving their arm after their arm is already moving.

    Free will is a reflection of reality, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t the ones doing the reflecting.

    Comment by Kevin White — April 5, 2008 @ 2:11 am

  3. The potential for societal control is worse than you paint. The “suggestion” will more likely be phrased, “move to the left-most lane and speed up to 65, or a point will be added to your license. You have ten seconds to comply.” One can argue this will be for the societal best, but how many stop to ask: what if someone were giving me such instructions? What happens to individual judgment and responsibility?

    Comment by Chawzy Rechalt — April 5, 2008 @ 2:28 am

  4. What is pernicious here is the idea that one’s personal choices and behavior can or should be predicted and controlled by others. Our objection is not just a matter of our enculturation as citizens in a free society, but a matter of the basic nature of what it is to be not only a human but an organism with a brain of a critical size to support consciousness.

    According to the best current theories of human consciousness (Hameroff & Penrose, Chalmers), “mind” is the emergent interaction of neurophysiology and information. At the neurophysiological level, the flow of information in the brain is substantially influenced by “noisy neurons” whose firing appears to be random (unrelated to specific inputs), and beyond that, by borderline-quantum-scale cellular structures that are theoretically susceptible to quantum randomicity and related effects.

    In other words, to the extent that the fundamental nature of the physical universe itself is nondeterministic, the flow of information in the brain is also influenced by nondeterministic factors. Tranlation: free will is built into the hardware. Free will is part of our basic nature. (Note: this is not a crude “new age” arguement: it is simply stating that if randomicity and other quantum effects imply that the physical universe is nondeterministic, then to the extent that we find such effects operating in human brains, we can infer that the information processing in those brains is also to some extent nondeterministic. Nature builds with few and simple rules.)

    When someone attempts to control your behavior by circumventing or forcibly overriding your free will, they are in effect attempting to treat you as a wholly-deterministic system: as it were, an object or a Newtonian mechanism. This amounts to denial of your existence as a “person,” a living organism that has consciousness and thereby has free will. Control-state measures, nanny-statism in whatever form, are the denial of personhood. And one of the fundamentally deepest transgressions of the individual person is to deny that they are indeed a person.

    So far as these crowd control algorithms are concerned, we can consider them as similar to a form of natural selection in favor of free individuals. Those who “think outside the box” and make deliberate choices about their own behavior can circumvent the attempt to control them and thereby retain more of their freedom than those who just go along with the herd. The algorithms operate on the basis of large numbers of datapoints, and aggregates of individuals as crowds, and probabilities rather than certainties. In other words, the algorithms don’t encompass the actions of individuals who are thinking and acting freely rather than reacting to stimuli and algorithmic rule-sets. Thinking for yourself isn’t just a good thing, it’s necessary. Whether it’s sufficient to prevent nonthinking crowds from going along with totalitarianism is another discussion for another day.

    Comment by g723 — April 5, 2008 @ 2:36 am

  5. I saw an econophysics presentation at APS March that involved cellphone tracking of real adults (not college students) and it turned out that similar things happened as in the MIT study. The majority of people stuck to a Lévy-flight-like pattern that only centered around 5 points at most. Adding to the disturbing factor was the preceding presentation talking about insurgent motion patterns, given by a military scientist. This knowledge could be as dangerous as nukes in the wrong hands–though, it is kinda neat to see everything to neatly categorized.

    Comment by tdubose — April 5, 2008 @ 2:52 am

  6. Interesting article, but I feel that the conclusion that “crowd theory is inherently pernicious because it fundamentally relies on a simplified model of individual behavior” is rather glib and reveals a startling misunderstanding of the basic process of science. (Surprising, as the rest of the article is a nice bit of science-opinion writing.)

    Is epidemiology, which fundamentally relies on a simplified model of individual behavior to model the spread of disease inherently pernicious? Does it make us less human?

    Does drug-development research make us less human because it relies fundamentally on using simplified (e.g. in vitro) models of human pathophysiology to generate and test promising candidate compounds? What about surgery, with its simplified models of human anatomy? Or internal medicine, for that matter, with vastly simplified and heuristic models of disease?

    Is physics fundamentally pernicious because it relies on simplified models of particle behaviors? Does that make the universe less real?

    Complaining about a science — especially an infant science — because it “makes simplifications” is simply absurd. That’s a fundamental part of the framework of modern reductionist science: simplify aspects of the system other than the precise phenomena being studied, and then add in complexity as needed. Perhaps modern science should never turn its gaze on humans in any capacity for fear of “cheapening ourselves” by not attempting to explain everything, 100%, on the first attempt?

    This line of argumentation, moreover, sounds suspiciously and sadly like the pre-Enlightenment Church’s response to doctors who wanted to understand the inner workings of man, or physicists who wanted to understand the universe. The claim was, more or less, that folks like Galileo and Harvey, by seeking base, mechanistic explanations for the nature of man and the universe, were somehow cheapening them, removing their mystery and grandeur, and by so doing, attacking God.

    The most glib and atavistic part of the conclusion is the final bit: “But by treating people as statistical stick-figures, we cheapen ourselves and, somehow, become less human.” Nowhere was it shown that treating people as statistical figments cheapens ourselves — indeed, judging by some of the results of that sort of work presented in the article, we may gain surprising insights into ourselves through even massive simplifications. And even if such work did “cheapen ourselves” (whatever that may mean), I don’t see how that makes us “less human” (are prostitutes subhuman, then?). Fortunately, the author doesn’t appear to see how that makes us less human either, falling sophistically back on the use of “somehow” to link the two concepts without ever having to explain how or why.

    I would argue that the author feels that crowd theory is pernicious because it has pernicious applications. This may be so (though I disagree); however, that is a very different argument than the one made here, which boils down to, “crowd theory is pernicious because it is practiced like a modern science” — and that is a very unpalatable and pernicious argument.

    For completeness, here is (briefly) why I disagree with the “pernicious applications” reading of crowd theory. Essentially, I do not believe that any of the applications cited here are inherently biased toward evil. For example, simulation of how civilian protestors interact with police could just as easily be used to design policing procedures optimized for controlling violent elements in a protest while minimizing the disruption to the non-violent elements. (That is, providing policing in a way that does not escalate the situation, and allows the non-violent protest to continue. Would that the policing Seattle provided during the WTO had been centered around not escalating violent situations!) Nothing in that work appears to provide an inherent bias toward using those results to better-quash demonstrations! It is indeed true that crowd theory could be used in undemocratic ways, and that is frightening — in the same frightening way that almost every medical advance could also be used to find a way to make a life more miserable — but is it inherent in the nature of crowd theory? The case for that extremely strong claim is simply not here made.

    Comment by Biologist — April 5, 2008 @ 5:50 am

  7. A great big pattern recognition generator. Great. It doesn’t take a William Gibson to see the evil that lurks behind the mask of the highest bidder. What’s even worse is that it may not be our bad guys, but the bad guys bad guys. The problem is, if we don’t see it coming it will all turn into a Gary Larson cartoon of everyone driving off the brink like lemming rushing to oblivion via SmartPhlow; and if we do see it coming, chaos, a slower route to oblivion.

    Comment by BlueDart — April 5, 2008 @ 6:09 am

  8. “Well, yes – but, more importantly, it’s a democratic, human rights issue, and improving the state’s ability to squash demonstrations doesn’t strike me as a desirable development.”

    Doesn’t it seem just as possible for demonstrators to this knowledge to increase their ability to manage their own demonstrations, and resist state attempts to squash them?

    “The notion that technology is somehow “neutral” was discredited long ago, but it seems to reemerge whenever someone dares declare a new technology harmful.”

    This rings true to me, but I’ve never encountered any sort of formal proof of it. Can you point me in the right direction?

    Comment by heresiarch — April 5, 2008 @ 7:19 am

  9. g723

    “In other words, to the extent that the fundamental nature of the physical universe itself is nondeterministic, the flow of information in the brain is also influenced by nondeterministic factors. Tranlation: free will is built into the hardware. Free will is part of our basic nature. (Note: this is not a crude “new age” arguement: it is simply stating that if randomicity and other quantum effects imply that the physical universe is nondeterministic, then to the extent that we find such effects operating in human brains, we can infer that the information processing in those brains is also to some extent nondeterministic. Nature builds with few and simple rules.)”

    I think it’s a huge, unsubstantiated leap between our brains are nondeterministic and we have free will. If the things in the brain are determined by our free will, then they are not nondeterministic. Rather then being a slave to mechanistic occurrences in the brain, we are slaves to nondetermined occurances which have tendencies to occur according to some pattern which statistical analysis reveals. I don’t see where I’m free, I just see my prison changing from a mechanistic to a nondeterministic one.

    In fact, in this model, all conscious experiences become a complex pattern between the tendencies of the non-determined, quantum activity, and the mechanistic rules that operate at higher levels, in a sort of feedback loop. I’m still in prison. The pattern of the universe is still everything, and I’m just an instantiation of one part of that pattern that, thanks to feedback loops, spends a bit of time deluded that it’s not part of the pattern, and that being freed from identification with one component of the pattern frees me.

    And then other peoples motivation to control my behavior actually comes from a different part of the pattern that also has me as a part. Rather then having anything at all to do with ethics or dignity, this crowd analysis coming to pass would just be a result of one part of the feedback pattern between quantum and deterministic systems altering another, which is exactly how feedback works. There would be no affront to dignity.

    If Hameroff and Penrose are basically right, the implications are to the question of who we are is huge, but not an example of free will. If you need their version of free will to get your argument about monitoring people being bad, I think you are in trouble.

    “And one of the fundamentally deepest transgressions of the individual person is to deny that they are indeed a person.”

    Is this true if it is true that persons have no free will or are ultimately illusory?

    Comment by TomK — April 5, 2008 @ 9:01 am

  10. When they say the SmartPhlow system can call drivers and ask them what speed they’re going or tell them which lane to use – does this mean call them on their mobile/cell phone? Isn’t that likely to *cause* tailbacks after they crash?

    “Can you tell us what speed you’re doing, sir? It’s for our computer.”

    “Sure, about 45. Let me just check OH GOD NO ”

    “Sir? Sir?”

    Comment by Ben — April 5, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  11. This is fantastic, thank you. You might be interested in the research of Valdis Krebs (, a researcher I spoke to at DERI Social Network Webcamp last year – (see link above for presentation notes), who is applying similar techniques to online social networks. The potential of these technologies, combined with next generation mobile device enabled social networks, to map, predict and control behaviour on a mass scale, is truly frightening.

    Comment by Gareth Stack — April 5, 2008 @ 11:11 am

  12. g723, actually or behavior and choices are always being predicted and constrained by other people.We do it to others ourselves: when you want to invite a friend to some event, you usually have a pretty good idea whether s/he is interested in said event and what will be the response.When you buy a gift for someone you’re predicting(either well or badly) what their response will be.I could bring you examples of this all day long….

    I don’t believe that this technology is pernicious more then, say, psychology, for the same reasons Biologist listed.Although I’m happy to hear about it:sounds interesting.I’m also not much enamored with paranoia around big governments: yes, they can be bad, which is the reason you need good checks and balances, but they also make many things possible that can’t be done otherwise(universal healthcare, for ex.)

    Comment by AntonGarou — April 5, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  13. Great post man! This has good applications to game design, particularly “serious games”, which in the right context could be exercised as the most powerful form of propaganda ever. You know about SEAS? DARPA funded simulations use similar models to predict how people’d react to grid failure, food shocks, martial law, disasters ect.

    Don’t be a sheep, redesign the game you’re in.


    Comment by Patrick — April 5, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  14. When you live in a culture where many things are designed for groups, group dynamics are impossible to avoid. Systems that encourage individuality are fine, when applied to activities that aren’t group-related. For example, the multiplicity of cable tv channels, TiVo, the insane amount of content on the Web itself, lead to greater choices, greater freedom. Bravo.

    When it comes to group behaviors, though, it makes sense to plan for maximum efficiency in many cases… as long as it’s transparent. Street lights are a pain in the ass… when you’re waiting at a red light and there’s no cars coming through the intersection crosswise. Sure. But if you express your individuality enough in that situation, you’ll get t-boned eventually.

    Same for the protest/crowd example given above. If I went to a peaceful protest and was told, “Look. The cops have set up a system such that it will harder for things to get out of hand and become violent,” I’d be MORE likely to go protest. I have as much physical fear of the Mob as I do of the Man. As long as my right to assemble isn’t infringed, I don’t see that as substantially different than providing enough cops to prevent looting. Again… as long as it’s transparent.

    I fear the government’s use of these techniques less than I do big biz, frankly. The government has proved amazingly unsophisticated at many social and psychological techniques. But banks? Insurance companies? Big pharma? Ho, ho, ho… Imagine getting an email from your insurance company that says, “Today is a high-risk day for the current strain of flu in your city. You have not had a flu shot and because of recent attendance at a major sporting event, have received a “probable carrier” rating. We are advising your employer that you should work from home today or take a personal/vacation day, as the risk of lost productivity based on possible multiple infections outweighs the value of your attendance. If you are asymptomatic by 5pm tomorrow, your condition will be upgraded to “possible carrier,” and you may return to work, though we advise wearing a breathing mask for an additional two days. See your HR department for a free mask, courtesy of ABC Health.”

    Plug in the “contraception” version of that email for college students, eh?

    Comment by Andy Havens — April 5, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

  15. (Warning: may provoke morose thoughts about just how structured and undynamic our lives really are.)

    That’s my favorite proposition put forth by the article. Keep it up.

    Comment by Designer — April 5, 2008 @ 6:49 pm

  16. Note to self: keep cell phone off until you need to make a call.

    Comment by andy — April 5, 2008 @ 9:24 pm

  17. the problem that strikes me with this kind of technology, and also with data trawling technologies, is that it is easier and (crucially) cheaper to build simplified models of human behaviour , our interactions and patterns of behaviour , and then detect suspicious abberations for investigation, than it is to detect and investigate instances of actual criminal behaviour.
    basically we could end up defining normal behaviour, and harassing those who do not fit the model, instead of pursuing those who have actually committed crimes. this will pressure people to become more conformist , less individual, and not to question authority, which will lead to stagnation and degradation of our culture and society.

    Comment by kedabra — April 5, 2008 @ 9:38 pm

  18. This article has inspired me to take paths less taken, and in general behave as unusually and randomly as I can get away with. Not only does it help you feel more alive, it keeps Them from being able to create a model of me.

    Are you alive, or a model?

    Comment by casey — April 5, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  19. Congratulations to Biologist for using the work “pernicious” with a frequency higher than any other reply or feedback in the history of the Internet or electronic bulletin boards.

    Comment by Pernicious chnit — April 5, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

  20. I applaud (and to some degree share) your spirit of resistance, casey, but I promise you that willful and contrarian and even random behavior are as easy to model as lockstep conformity in scenarios such as these.

    Comment by AG — April 6, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

  21. “It is important for the common good to foster individuality; for only the individual can produce the new ideas which the community needs for its continuous improvement and requirements – indeed, to avoid sterility and petrification.”

    -Albert Einstein

    Comment by mike s — April 6, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  22. Excellent post, very elucidating. I think people often forget their behaviors are essentially controlled by string theory. Technology is bringing us closer everyday to a parallel processing of our world. A scary thought that someone could know what was going happen hours or days before it did.

    It’s wonderful to find thought provoking content like this online, keep up the great work.

    Comment by a johnstone — April 6, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  23. It seems little concerning that any group who has power to influence people and relies on these models will have an incentive to coerce people into thinking like their model suggests.

    Since it is unlikely that models will any time soon/ever involve the kind of complexity of actual society, it seems that widespread introduction of these models will likely result in more pressure towards conformity.

    Comment by Brendan — April 6, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  24. Firstly, I would like to focus on the fact that the crowd theory is still based on the predictability of crowds, this being a crowd that has a singular vision will not divert from its course unless there is an external. This external being a; non-threatening, predictable, entity. the mention of the mathematics of how gas moves, related then to how there are similarities made me think of the fact that as mentioned at quantum level particles still react unpredictably, and that there is still no mathematical way to predict how gas will move in a room, because there are too many variables.
    Crowd theory suffers the same problem. The empirical is done in controlled environments, and can thus never forecast or truly predict, all it does is force empirical information on a situation and hopes that there will be no unknown.
    Here I would like to mention Nassim Nicholas Talebs book The Black Swan (READ IT!), and the Soweto uprisings of the 1980’s (south Africa) and most other protests that turn bad; the protest may be controlled by an ‘overseer’ but this higher will never be able to control the base events that cause a violent protest, that being in many circumstances, a random shot from the police that acts like a catalysts.
    Secondly on the paranoia of the commentators; there will always be a struggle between the ‘Man’ and the individual, it is this check that balances what can and can’t be done. This might sound naive, I know, but the reality is that using information such as crowd theory will only streamline society and allows for increased production and speed up the rate of development. We have moved beyond an Orwell like 1984, where government needs to control the individual. The individual bought himself into such a world when we accepted capitalism.
    Now, for arguments sake, I would like to agree by saying crowd theory will change our world, however, the impact of crowd theory will only be visible in a society where the individual agrees to follow the suggestions and will never be a tool that has the power to control the individual. The true benefactor of such information will be the business sector, for they will have the power to control large groups, employers, without facing resistance.
    Laters, peace.

    Comment by That college guy — April 6, 2008 @ 11:49 pm

  25. If the technology doesn’t lead us to be controlled or less humans, we still take the risk of self-fulfill the profecy

    Comment by Sur Surac — April 7, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

  26. The arguments made here about the inherently evil nature of studies of group behavior miss the point. Just as crowd behavior at a demonstration can be modeled, are you not also modeling the behavior of the police that they are interacting with? Indeed, could not this very kind of modeling be used to determine/influence the behavior of the police? I would think that military thinking (sic) is probably more easily modeled as it is in many ways so goverened by simple rules of engagement. Or consider the mentality of the overwhelming amount of governmental bureaucracy. Is there any more beehive-like behavior than that of a department of government bureaucrats?

    Comment by jaguar19 — April 7, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

  27. People can’t even figure out horse racing. What chance do they have of figuring out each other?

    I don’t know whether or not to be scared by this technology. Certainly, if anyone wanted to track me, it would be incredibly feasible for them to do so. It would also be extremely easy to accurately predict my behavior on a level of how late I stay up each night, when I go to bed, what route I take to work, etc. I don’t know what is so scary about that. I have no reason to believe Verizon isn’t doing it right now. They have a GPS in my phone. For all I know it could stay on even if I pull my phone’s battery out. Verizon has or could easily have all the data on me. They probably don’t even need a computer, just someone to read my file for a couple hours, in order to figure out my daily patterns. Perhaps I should be more frightened by this but I just don’t see how it’s possible to truly be anonymous or private.

    I recall a recent news piece I saw about a Comcast exec saying he’d like it if the cable box had a camera in it to identify which members of the household were watching TV for the purpose of tailoring ad content. Naturally, people don’t want a camera in their home showing what they’re doing. But if Comcast were to collude with Verizon to see when I was at home, they’d be able to serve up much improved ad content. Not that Comcast and Verizon would ever team up since cable and fios are competing services, but you get the idea.

    Comment by dren — April 8, 2008 @ 12:23 am

  28. Biologist — thanks for your comments. I definitely deserve some grief for the perfunctory hand-waving that serves as my conclusion. (What can I say? It was already at 4,500 words and I just hadda bring it home.) That said, I’m not sure your convincing evisceration of several straw men really moves the ball forward.

    First, you point out that simplification, and reductionist models, are the bulwark of modern science. This does not come as news to me. Indeed, I was careful to emphasize that I was not impugning the fundamental efficacy of the approach. Instead, my concern was with cultural impact– the moral angle.

    Then you ask why the cultural affects will be any more deleterious than those from, say, drug-development research, or physics. And you wonder what the heck my phrase “cheapening ourselves” actually means.

    The second question is on-target — more of my handwaving — but the first is just rhetorical bunting. As Marvin Minsky famously told Steward Brand, “Don’t get blinded with analogies and similarities– always look for the _differences_.” The cultural affects of using simplified models of human behavior will be different for epidemiology, because what’s being studied is different.

    But, enough sparring– let me just answer your main, underlying question: what makes crowd theory so “pernicious”? Based on people’s comments, a surprising number of readers quickly tumbled to the answer: My biggest concern is that the models will be self-fulfilling.

    I mentioned Black-Scholes in the essay, in part because it is such a wonderful example of this phenomena. As Donald MacKenzie explains in his brilliant book “An Engine, Not a Camera”, option prices before 1973 show very little agreement with the Black-Scholes predictions. But after the equations were published in 1974, the divergence slowly shrank away.

    Yes, Black-Scholes became an accurate model of option pricing because… people began using the formula to price options. But it was self-fulfilling in a deeper sense, as well. Just as formulas in physics make simplifying assumptions – a frictionless incline, no wind resistance — Black-Scholes assumed zero transaction costs, unlimited borrowing at the riskless interest rate, and unconstrained short-selling. These were all wildly unrealistic in 1973. But as regulators adopted Black-Scholes to govern everything from risk at financial institutions to executive compensation, the model’s assumptions rode along like stowaways, becoming deeply embedded in economic policy. Those “unrealistic assumptions” are now empirical fact. To a very real extent, the world was remade to fit the model, instead of the model being tweaked to fit the world.

    This, then, is why crowd theory threatens to “cheapen ourselves”. Because it tries to explain human behavior, it will also impact human behavior in a way that, say, biological models never could. I fear the impact will be that, in subtle and seemingly innocuous steps, we will begin to act more like automatas, and less like humans.


    Comment by sgs — April 8, 2008 @ 2:42 am

  29. The staggering increase in surveillance technologies and their implementation by military, police, government and business follow the old pattern of – if we have a capability, have paid for it, and can deploy it, then we will test it and use it. The human being or individual is no match for the models imposed on them. Once deployed such practices multiply, and resistive practices require “groups” to be effective. Infiltration is the common response to limit or redirect such groups. The question I would like to pose is – What kind of countermeasures are available to those whose “crowd” wishes to remain either anonymous, or off the grid? It is here that participation in social protest or unregulated activity must multiply in its diversity and deployment, outwitting, like the border-crossers from Mexico, every lame fence or surveillance grid applied to control them.

    Comment by rab — April 8, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

  30. I don’t know Steve, was Black Scholes designed to _describe_ the way they thought options _were_ priced, or to _prescribe_ the way they thought they _should_ be priced? If it’s the former, then you are spot on. If it’s the latter, then perhaps not so much.

    [Editor: From my reading, it was absolutely designed to be descriptive, not prescriptive. s.

    Comment by fruminator — April 14, 2008 @ 3:48 am

  31. Great post. I have to comment on one aspect of it: any description or analogy to the WTO protests in Seattle is probably wildly off the mark. Are you comparing to what _actually happened_ or what was reported on TV? Because the two were wildly different.

    I watched it on TV from my office on the outskirts of downtown and thought my city was in riot mode. After two hours strolling across all of downtown and the “riot,” it was evident to me that was really happening: TV crews making hay while the sun was shining. There was a legitimate protest, but it was far scarier on television than in person.

    The research being done is valuable and worth pursuing, but WTO Seattle highlights some of the challenges moving from theory to reality.

    Comment by Steve — April 18, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

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