Personal Blog of Joe Brewer

Occupy Wall Street, Swarm Behavior & Self-Organized Criticality

In Complex Systems, Social Change, Wisdom of Crowds on October 15, 2011 at 3:46 am

If you’ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street protests these last few weeks, you may be surprised by how quickly it spread from a small group of disgruntled youth in New York to a planetary mobilization that is now active in more than 100 cities — all in a few short weeks.  This is an unprecedented ripple of change in local conversations, media coverage, global consciousness, and international solidarity.

My friend and fellow observer of global patterns, Timothy Rayner, describes the Occupy protests as a “swarm movement”, suggesting that we may be in the midsts of an unprecedented pattern of self-organization that wasn’t possible before the internet.  I am inclined to agree with his core thesis and want to suggest that we are observing what complexity researchers call self-organized criticality, defined in the following way:

A point at which a system changes radically its behavior or structure, for instance, from solid to liquid. In standard critical phenomena, there is a control parameter which an experimenter can vary to obtain this radical change in behavior. In the case of melting, the control parameter is temperature.

Self-organized critical phenomena, by contrast, is exhibited by driven systems which reach a critical state by their intrinsic dynamics, independently of the value of any control parameter. The archetype of a self-organized critical system is a sand pile. Sand is slowly dropped onto a surface, forming a pile. As the pile grows, avalanches occur which carry sand from the top to the bottom of the pile. At least in model systems, the slope of the pile becomes independent of the rate at which the system is driven by dropping sand. This is the (self-organized) critical slope.  Read more…

I wrote about this a few weeks ago when describing the importance of phase transitions for the study of social change.  We have passed a tipping point (also called a critical threshold, inflection point, regime change, or paradigm shift) and the patterns are changing quickly.  Pressure has been growing for years now with the following trends indicating that the status quo is increasingly unstable and therefore unlikely to persist much longer:

  • Growing income inequality in the United States and around the world;
  • A shift from investments in productive capital (e.g. manufacturing) toward financial capital (e.g. making money off of money — derivatives, hedge funds, etc.);
  • Ongoing unemployment and widespread economic insecurity since the 2008 financial meltdown;
  • The collapse of a particular life narrative that builds from childhood to college to career and homebuilding and culminating in retirement.  This life arc no longer feels viable to the mainstream youth generation;
  • Increasing awareness about and severity of environmental damage, especially that having to do with global climate disruption;
  • Decades of decline in public confidence regarding government, corporations, and the banking system;
  • Rapid depletion of many raw materials that now drive innovation in life cycle design for new products;
  • Emergence of popularity for social entrepreneurship, novel corporate forms for promoting social good, and mainstream business strategy incorporating sustainability at top management levels.

These trends (and many more) suggest that the old models for building civilization have become obsolete.  It is now a mainstream view that our government is fundamentally corrupted by corporate influence.  And we are beginning to see the capacity for the younger generations (both Gen X and Millennials) to develop and deploy technologies for mass mobilization.

So what does self-organized criticality have to do with the Occupy Wall Street movement?  In a word — Everything.

This is a movement that has no elevated leader.  It is not making demands to authorities with decision-making power in the old institutions.  It is being organized locally by each group and built as a fractal pattern of small groups setting plans through general assemblies, orchestration of networks of groups through hub websites (like the one at Occupy Together linked to above), and coordinated branding through meme propagation of the “We’re the 99%” slogan.

The key thing to keep in mind about self-organizing systems is that their unfolding dynamic is the source of group intelligence.  There are no puppeteers pulling the strings.  It isn’t possible to orchestrate nested networks in a centralized manner.  Instead what we’re seeing is the emergence of structure and social order through the conversations themselves, starting at the small scale and spiraling upward.  Occupy Wall Street is a swarm that — like a flock of birds or school of fish — has burst into action as individuals finding resonance with one another only to discover that a coherent group flow has emerged.

I cannot say how far this movement will go, although the trends just mentioned suggest that monumental change is imminent.  If this doesn’t lead to fundamental change, it will at least be part of the gathering momentum for future attempts to be more bold and effective.  If you are cheering Occupy Wall Street onward (or concerned that it may unseat you from a comfortable position in the old political order), you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the laws of self-organization and swarm behavior in order to grasp what is going on.

For my part, I’ll continue to shed light on the dynamics at play to assist in our global transition toward social justice and sustainability… fluttering along as part of the swarm!

  1. Hi Joe! This is Scott Davis here – we were introduced by Zac Lym.
    This article is excellent – I really appreciate how you lay out conditions that make swarms so possible. I also really agree that this the absence of demands is not due to lack of organization but instead a pessimism about the effectiveness of demands.

    I would love to share this article on OAG.org, with proper credits of course.

  2. Hey Scott,

    By all means, please share it around! Glad to circle back into orbit with you… onward and upward.

    In solidarity,

    Joe

  3. […] Occupy Wall Street, Swarm Behavior "This is a movement that has no elevated leader. It is not making demands to authorities with decision-making power in the old institutions. Source: http://www.chaoticripple.com […]

  4. Hi, Joe~~

    I’m in Los Angeles, so I’m closer to the Occupy L.A. demonstrations than any others. All the news broadcasters should read your article in order to get a clue about what’s going on with our highly educated young people of now.

    I taught most grades at elementary and secondary levels for 36 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I am bilingual in English and Spanish, with Special and General Teaching Credentials and a Resource Specialist Certificate. A classroom environment conducive to learning with tasks individualized according to student needs created a harmonious atmosphere which included the ability to study nature and horticulture in our half-acre garden plot. Nothing mattered more than everyone having good days, and I’m hoping many of my students are participating now as society changes along the lines of the shifting paradigms you have been describing. Thanks so much for your work.

  5. Excellent article. And apparently 900 cities worldwide are involved now.

    • Yep, the cascade is unfolding around us. One sign of self-organized criticality is that the systems dynamic sets the pace and scale of transition. In this case, the spread of engagement to new locales is following a path of rapid diffusion comparable to what I’ve seen in other complex media — water seeping through soil; photons bouncing around in clouds; heat moving through composite metals. A fractal pattern tends to appear that tracks local forking through pathways of LOCALIZED least resistance.

      The number of cities is interesting in its own right as a measure of spatial density. And the pattern of growth (were we to map it) would show how the ideas are spreading throughout our social world.

  6. […] Occupy Wall Street, Swarm Behavior & Self-Organized Criticality by Joe Brewer […]

  7. […] Occupy Wall Street, Swarm Behavior & Self-Organized Criticality by Joe Brewer […]

  8. […] Continue Reading >>> Share this:TwitterEmailPrintStumbleUponFacebookLinkedInDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Better Future, Effective Government, Mutual Responsibility and tagged conversations, income inequality, occupy wall street, social good, social justice, sustainability, we are the 99% by empathysurplus. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  9. I think one of the parameters which if varied will change what type of movement you have, is that of facilitation. Different facilitation techniques creates different forms of interaction between its participants. And different forms of interactions lead to different types of movement. Check out my article http://shareable.net/blog/occupy-as-new-societal-model-ways-to-improve-it

    • Hi al.pha,

      I completely agree. As a group facilitator myself, I can attest to the importance of social architecture for embodying values and promoting desired group behaviors. Occupy Wall Street has been employing group facilitation methods that promote equality, accountability, collaboration, and personal empowerment. All of which are essential ingredients for its early success.

      Thanks for dropping by. I love your article!

      Best,

      Joe

      • was initially symaithetpc to these people. If you look closer at who they are and what they are saying, this is what I see:Young liberals who are upset at the people that they elected, which is that Obama and the Dems. didn’t prosocute any of the Wall St. Titans that got our country into this ecenomic mess. Obama increased the bail-outs to the too big to fail that Bush started, and Obama hasn’t made any real regulation changes to the financial system.You can sense some frustration from these people at Obama, but it seems that most just blame the rich, or the Republicans for stopping any of the necessary changes.It also seems that many of these people are students and they are upset about the debt that they are in because of the high tuition costs. Yet they don’t see the connection between the ever increasing tuition prices and the government involvment in the insuring and supplying student loans, and the universities that take advantage of this situation.What is interesting to me is that these people are angry at liberal government for not fixing the system, yet they think more liberalism is the answer . Even though Democratic politicians had total and unstoppable power in Washington for two full years, and controlled congress for 4 years, they would still rather blame Republicans, who were completely out of power in 09-10..It seems to me that Obama rules this country just like Bush. Obama continued the Bush bail-outs, Obama continued the Bush wars, Obama pushes amnesty and high immigration rates to dampen wages just like Bush. These people wanted change but instead they got more of the same. Yet they don’t blame their own politicians.

  10. […] Occupy Wall Street, Swarm Behavior & Self-Organized Criticality Occupy Wall Street has spread from New York to a planetary scale in a few short weeks. The laws of self-organization explain why… Source: http://www.chaoticripple.com […]

  11. […] web of patterns shaping its unfolding path.  In the early weeks of the movement, I wrote about the swarm behavior through which OWS grew quickly — seemingly out of nowhere — from a small group of […]

  12. […] web of patterns shaping its unfolding path.  In the early weeks of the movement, I wrote about the swarm behavior through which OWS grew quickly — seemingly out of nowhere — from a small group of […]

  13. […] of patterns shaping its unfolding path.  In the early weeks of the movement, I wrote about the swarm behavior through which OWS grew quickly — seemingly out of nowhere — from a small group of activists in […]

  14. […] York going viral around the globe, and hackers, free information advocates, online collectives like Anonymous and LulzSec, tirelessly working to bring checks and balance to the corruption of […]

  15. […] going viral around the globe, and hackers, free information advocates, online collectives like Anonymous and LulzSec, tirelessly working to bring checks and balance to the corruption of […]

  16. […] York going viral around the globe, and hackers, free information advocates, online collectives like Anonymous and LulzSec, tirelessly working to bring checks and balance to the corruption of […]

  17. […] Self-organized critical phenomena, by contrast, is exhibited by driven systems which reach a critical state by their intrinsic dynamics, independently of the value of any control parameter. The archetype of a self-organized critical system is a sand pile. Sand is slowly dropped onto a surface, forming a pile. As the pile grows, avalanches occur which carry sand from the top to the bottom of the pile. At least in model systems, the slope of the pile becomes independent of the rate at which the system is driven by dropping sand. This is the (self-organized) critical slope." by +Joe Brewer http://www.chaoticripple.com/2011/occupy-wallstreet-swarm-behavior-and-self-organized-criticality/ […]

  18. […] tipping points have been studied extensively by complexity researchers and go by the clunky name of self-organized criticality — which can be summarized as “builds up slow, reorganizes quickly”.  This is the […]

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