Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

Don’t you hear ‘em out there? It’s block war, man! - from Judge Dredd, a dystopian depiction of the human “behavioral sink”.

Section 1… The Spark

Pandemic influenza was the topic of week nine of urgent evoke, and although influenza is a very real and dangerous threat, it was not the real threat of the comic. The enemy was not the flu, but rather one “Citizen X” who was supposedly scare mongering about a pandemic flu. It was a crisis of “information” or so it was put in the comic strip. Forgive me, but I’m calling foul here. So… we are asked to accept that the motive for Citizen X was… to cause a breakdown in societal function, resulting in the potential deaths of millions? And that he supposedly wants to go on to “destroy evoke”? Ok… whatever lol. Is this really the best these authors can come up with? Unfortunately, I don’t believe that this is simply a case of bad script writing.

We’re given the impression through the comic that the influenza is not a pandemic, but that the x-man is being a bad boy and somehow spreading massive lies about the extent of the disease. Ok… so… the media outlets are… inept? People can’t, oh I don’t know… verify these details? Ever hear of something called the internet? It’s “grade A” bull****. Rumors are nothing new, and people rarely panic when panic is not warranted. These people know damn well it’s denial that people are susceptible to, not panic, which leads me to ask: why the focus on what they call “misinformation”? What is that really about? It is a form of fostering denial.

Let’s make a supposition. Let’s say that the pandemic in the story was indeed a pandemic and that the problems associated with the pandemic were real, and not the misinformation of Mr. X-man. What exactly is to be done in that event? Well I’m sure certain people would just love for there to be a ready means to deny the situation. And wouldn’t it be great if we could forcibly silence these “bad guys”? We couldn’t have a panic on our hands, could we? No? Couldn’t happen? Well let’s think about this: why, during a supposed panic, is one of the characters playing the locals, trying to get them to accept loans? It’s not as if that is pertinent to the situation at hand. All it comes off as is trying to take advantage of a fearful situation. So I have to ask: is the problem the flu or the flu scare? If it’s the former, then why the implied push for “counter information” (which in my mind is simply denial)? If it’s the latter, then why the talk about “loans” and “micro finance”? Seriously, W…T…F does that have to do with a ****ing flu? Are loans the way the World Bank deals with a God **** flu?

If people are at the point where they’re panicking, along with all the associations of panic (e.g. looting, rioting, general mayhem), then that panic is usually justified. Other people panicking is justification enough for people to panic (i.e. rational panic). The denial of panic-inducing information (via a “dark site”… ugh, can’t they come up with a name that doesn’t patronize us?) is nothing more than a band-aid solution. It may be one that’s ready to go at the flip of a switch, but the idea is inherently reactionary, whereas the goal should have been a proactive one.

Section 2… The Question

So what exactly is the problem? The comic would like you to believe that it is a hysterical reaction (panic) to a perceived problem (influenza). So why is it exactly that crowds are reacting hysterically? The cause the comic would like you to believe is misinformation. The solution provided is one of spreading “accurate” information (i.e. propaganda) and denying misinformation (i.e. denial). Question: If the “misinformation” portrayed in the comic suddenly becomes accurate information, is panic warranted?

So why do people panic? I previously mentioned that other people panicking becomes justification for panic, but again the question is why?


[One] theory suggests that, in crowded and disrupted populations, it is increasingly important for members to be able to predict crises and danger, which requires that each individual keep all other members of the population in view. Altmann (1967) has pointed out that the survival of social animals often depends upon instant recognition of, and correct response to, the social signals emanating from other individuals in the group. Thus, in critical social situations it may become necessary to crowd together to increase the probability of receiving important social signals as rapidly as possible. In other words, the individual who is not constantly in touch with the group may miss some essential social cue. It is at least reasonable to expect, therefore, that crowding may stimulate more crowding.

Here’s the challenge: Does a band-aid type response of denying misinformation actually solve a crisis, particularly when the underlying cause is ignored? Which brings me to my next issue… what is the underlying cause? Hypothesis: The underlying cause is a combination of factors resulting from the growth of population density; most notably a correlation between regressive behaviorism (i.e. attributes of the “behavioral sink”) and population density as well as the increased inter-linkage associated with a dense population.

Section 3… The Investigation

"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." -Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Population density has been a growing part of humanity with the rise of civilization, and indeed, even recent trends towards urbanization are more and more obvious. This is due to the cost/benefit ratio associated with urbanism. Certain benefits are accrued as population density increases, for example lower distribution costs and centralized management. More than that though, population density is an impetus for increased technological and social complexity, more so than either resources or simply a high population. This theme was explored here.


The process of endogenous technological change […] may also be influenced by population density. For instance, a country with a large population may not possess a higher growth rate of technology than a country with a medium sized population, because the population density in the second country is higher. This may be true because the need to invent new technologies […] will be higher in the second country, compensating for the disadvantage of having less inventors in absolute terms. The speed of communication, the diffusion of knowledge, and division of labor could also be higher in the second country, which could lead to a faster pace of technological progress than in the more populous country […]; or higher population density increases the effective market size and thus raises the returns to innovation. This is not only theoretically plausible but supported empirically by cross-country growth research (e.g. Gallup and Sachs, 1998; Bloom at al. 1999; Nestmann, 2000).

[…]While population increases the number of potential suppliers of new technology, population density generates the linkages, the infrastructure, the demand, and the effective market size for technological innovations.

The article goes on to explore historical trends of population density and regions of the world and the corresponding technological progress, which supports this theory. In a phrase, population density’s attributes are increased networking and resource share, which, when combined with the demand created by increased population density, assist in the progression of societal and technological change.

However, increased population density also has its costs, starting with an eventual decline of benefits:


The influence of population density on technological change is positive but decreasing over time. The transfer of knowledge is faster, the higher population density becomes, but note that the speed of this transfer is not unlimited. Although the absolute value still increases over time, the marginal increase of the growth rate in technological diffusion declines. For a single country, its own level of technology may, at lower levels of population density, also be more influenced by population density than at higher levels.

But population density does not only represent the diffusion of technology but also the need and the ability to use a new technology. […] Once the infrastructure has been built [for technological change], the influence of population density is concentrated only on the diffusion process and less on the demand factors and the basic infrastructure necessary for efficient technological spillovers, which could account for the falling marginal returns from population density. Moreover, if population density becomes too high, the costs of selecting the right information increases and this could lower the benefits of a faster knowledge transfer. The inference from the empirical evidence, which lead to a positive but declining influence of population density on the growth rate of technology is consistent with these arguments.

More troubling problems arise with increased social interaction all on its own. The question is one of: Does contact breed conflict?


In his book Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim elaborates on his theory: “The closer functions come to one another, however, the more points of contact they have; the more, consequently, are they exposed to conflict. The judge never is in competition with the business man, but the brewer and the wine-grower often try to supplant each other. As for those who have exactly the same function, they can forge ahead only to the detriment of others (Durkheim 267).”

One case study aimed at answering that question was John Calhoun’s studies of mice in enclosed environments and increasing population density. Disturbing trends arose with increasing density (and hence increasing societal interaction):

Males became aggressive, some moving in groups, attacking females and the young. Mating behaviors were disrupted. Some males became exclusively h***sexual. Others became pansexual and hypersexual, attempting to mount any rat they encountered. Mothers neglected their infants, first failing to construct proper nests, and then carelessly abandoning and even attacking their pups. In certain sections of the pens, infant mortality rose as high as 96%, the dead cannibalized by adults. Subordinate animals withdrew psychologically, surviving in a physical sense but at an immense psychological cost. They were the majority in the late phases of growth, existing as a vacant, huddled mass in the centre of the pens. Unable to breed, the population plummeted and did not recover. The crowded rodents had lost the ability to co-exist harmoniously, even after the population numbers once again fell to low levels. At a certain density, they had ceased to act like rats and mice, and the change was permanent.

[…]As population density increased it became ever more difficult for an individual to control the frequency of social contact. The result was unwanted interaction, leading to adverse reactions such as hostility and withdrawal, and ultimately, to the type of social and psychological breakdown seen during the latter stages in his crowded pens.

Section 4… The Analysis

The term “behavioral sink” was used to describe the regressive behavior of the mice as a culmination of individual erraticisms:

The behavioral sink is not a pathological behavior per se, but a sort of para-pathology, which seemingly appears from, and supervenes upon, the behavior of individual animals within the crowded group. (44) The way Calhoun describes it, behavior becomes more and more erratic until, eventually, the behavioral sink emerges like a vortex. Thereafter it acts as an accelerant, exacerbating the effects of the other pathological behaviors: "The unhealthy connotations of the term are not accidental," Calhoun wrote, "a behavioral sink does act to aggravate all forms of pathology that can be found within a group." (45) It is important to note that the behavioral sink was not inevitable, but emerged as a consequence of individual rats and mice becoming so used to contact when eating and drinking that they begin to associate these processes with the presence of others. By altering the feeding arrangements to reduce social contact, Calhoun found he was able to prevent its development. Without the sink, crowding was less lethal, but remained grotesque: infant mortality in severely overcrowded enclosures levels out at about 80%. With a behavioral sink, that figure skips to 96%. (46) Crowding pathology, therefore, was not dependent upon the behavioral sink, but it seemed to mark a point at which the animals are overwhelmed by the crowding, leading to a societal state-change.

The behavioral sink, as a description of crowd behavior, came to represent the culmination and exhibition of the erraticisms of individuals, multiplied by the societal interconnectedness associated with “crowds”. “The crowd had long been associated with pathology: with mass panic, with the spread of disease, with political radicalism, aggression, and unruly social behavior.” Could panic be an attribute of the “behavioral sink”? Biologically, social networking serves a purpose of acting as an alarm for potential problems. Examples of this are abundant in nature and I would suggest that humans are no different. What’s interesting here is that the very reasons for increased population density (increased societal interaction) become the problem that is being addressed. The solution begets the problem. "The only known counter to the effect of the behavioral sink is to reduce the frequency and intensity of social interaction." This means reducing social complexity.

Regression is a form of simplification. It is the shedding of complex constituent aspects of an ordered society. The results of regression are aspects now associated with the behavioral sink: panic, rioting, looting, mass hysteria. This recalls the idea of the diminishing marginal returns of complexity: when complexity no longer confers benefits greater than simplification, society will regress.

So what does this have to do with the flu? In this case, the influenza becomes a physical manifestation of our apprehension for (and the hazards of) excessive social interactions. Greater complexity (i.e. social interactions) does not yield greater benefits than the regressive behaviorisms of the behavioral sink. People naturally would want to isolate themselves to avoid possible illness and if necessary will even go to such lengths as looting if the perceived benefits are worth it. Panic, being a rational act when others are panicking, further exacerbates and spreads such behavior. The result is a rise in the regressive erraticisms of individuals spread across a “crowd” (i.e. the behavioral sink).

The question now asked is: Can the increasing social networking of urbanism solve the problems caused by increased social networking? The band-aid solution must either try to increase the benefits of complex social interactions beyond that of regressivism or must at least give perceived benefits (i.e. lying). A “dark site” (or denial) could act as a band-aid solution if it at least accomplishes that latter goal.

Perhaps what this really is, is a question of scale. Where can the benefits of social density coincide with simplification to a point that regressive erraticisms of the behavioral sink no longer are appealing? Is the answer further complexity… or not?

-Iron Helix

Views: 157

Comment by Gabriel Martin on May 3, 2010 at 9:55am
hmm, where to start... can I get a clarification? Are you familiar with behavior correlations between humans vs mice? If this is your area of expertise, what do these results really mean? Can the be taken as writing on the wall? Btw Iron, this would really be better for the forum, would make a better discussion than blog.
Comment by Gabriel Martin on May 3, 2010 at 9:55am
as always though, amazing
Comment by Sarah O.Connor Panamericana on May 3, 2010 at 1:14pm
I think this is perfectly well for a blog post Iron.
I am astounded with the accuracy, finesse, articulation,
depth and respect for the reader with which you dealt with the subject.
I applaud you.
Comment by A.V.Koshy on May 3, 2010 at 1:57pm
there is a book written by william kotzwinkle who unfortunately is known only for scripting or partly scripting e.t. whereas his major works languish in relative obscurity of which one is called doctor rat.
it deals with a rat who becomes able to think like human beings and resultantly starts a world wide revolt against man which succeeds. though the end is in the best traditions of comedy, the novel is dystopic in its vision
iron's article and a related one which appeared recently by ezra ho connect human behaviour to laboratory analyzed animal behaviour correctly.
in the case of human behaviour the issues are more complex.
for instance - the rats do not have what we call the media and communicate via signals
what happens when we add the "sophisticated" methods of communication at our disposal to the situation of a pandemic?
are pandemics man made or natural?
the main question raised, that of information overload which is dangerous according to the comic as it leaves the individual or the family or small groups at a disadvantage seemingly because they do not know how to mine the given data for what is relevant - assuming they do have internet - is thus at premium and the solution is also offered which is to go to a dark site where things are "in place" as reliable data and information because they have been prepared in advance as part of a city's or area's urban resilience plan or disaster preparedness networks.
several things come to mind - first is the idea of psychological aid - panic or fear is simultaneously portrayed as bad and good - but the analysis has to be looked at more closely
if the panic ensues from misinformation by which is meant telling the people everything, rumour, falsehood, information, data, truth - then it is not good/bad
if they are told only what is good for them - the dark site being reached to them via sms or whatever - then it is considered good and they are able to survive the crisis
the question here is a deeper one. what is reality?is it minimal or maximal? is it a mess we can control or must try to or something larger than our puny grasp and if the latter then the misinformation, the information overload, the pandemic itself and the people , who are not by the way a h***genous entity , will react not as predicted or in any predictable fashion
while evoke is going on and just prior to it we had earthquakes in haiti and chile, the volcanic ash incident, the oil spill, and now the boston water party (excuse me for using a euphemism)
while the first three seem like natural disasters and the last two man made or artificial all are a combination of both factors
in high risk areas like urban centres where population density is more than in rural ones the advantages of larger networking and shared resources will not offset the effects of these tragedies unless because of the decentralized nature of all human activities, human nature and nature and reactions or actions.
this is not a disadvantage as many people think -
the rats were in a cage but if a pandemic strikes a city one/many can flee, stand and fight, do nothing, react by becoming anti-social, stick around and die, be victimised etc., the possibilities are numerous and cancel out any attempt to impose an overall plan to change or improve the situation for the better.
albert camus' book the plague gives an example - when the plague strikes some people gather in a church to pray thereby increasing the risk of infection and the novel thereby astutely points out that humans react like rats in cages huddling in the centre when attacked
the deaths, the disease spreading, the hand of fate that leaves some untouched, while others engage in large scale or smaller rescue operations and still others in rape arson lotting pillage and murder will all take place becasue we are dealing with the single simple reality here that there is no such thing called a crowd - the crowd lies simply becasue it doesn't exist as far as human beings are concerned
instead there is only news, but i prefer to use the terms stories or texts
unless getting out is banned governments ,which too would fail because some would get out somehow anyway
the temporary solution - there is no permanent one - is to multiply the methods of reconnaisance regarding the future and strategies of survival to the extent where there are not only plans but innumerable back up plans and thinking on the run and innnovation and creatibvity and originality to the point where each man thinks like this
i must be the last one left standing (this does not preclude generosity or helping simply because there is no plan or rather one can be part of all plans and endeavours)
regarding the comic, you take it too seriously dear iron
Comment by A.V.Koshy on May 3, 2010 at 3:36pm
sorry there are four or five typos and/or editing mistakes...
Comment by Kevin Carruthers on May 3, 2010 at 3:44pm
Wow, deliciously cynical as always, Iron. As always, it is well-written and takes an intelligent view at the issue.

I do agree with A.V. though, don't take these comics seriously - they're only a way of informing us as to the basics of the issue (and supporting the World Bank, thus the loans)
Comment by Iron Helix on May 3, 2010 at 8:19pm
Quote: Are you familiar with behavior correlations between humans vs mice? If this is your area of expertise, what do these results really mean? Can the be taken as writing on the wall?

Humans differ from mice in that they are better able to handle excessive social interaction through something called “conceptual space”, which is just a way of saying they have the ability to make a mental effort to ignore and/or limit interactions. However, it has been hypothesized that even conceptual space has its limitations. For instance, conceptual space may work fine in a home of 5 people, but not in a home of 50 people. Schools, hospitals, confined ships, and particularly prisons are the usual examples of where conceptual space has its limits.

In the instance of a pandemic flu, where social interaction is poisoned by the hazard of illness, being in an environment that is just tolerable with the idea of conceptual space, becomes completely intolerable both physically and conceptually. The response is often one of creating more “space” both physically and conceptually.

@ A.V.Koshy
Thanks for your insights and response. Sure, accurate information obviously has its place, and inaccurate information can be harmful. The response to information, be it accurate/inaccurate/good/bad, however, is largely similar and follows the pattern I described in my post. The act of dispersing from cities during the event of a pandemic flu is one of creating physical and conceptual space where previously the lack thereof had proved to be hazardous. People’s particular responses to such an event are often unable to be anticipated, you are correct, and they can vary from person to person. I would postulate, however, that human response, like most things, is also a form of scale. If you apply enough pressure to a situation, I would believe that you would get a certain, repeatable response. Telling a group that one person among them has the common cold will not yield the same response as telling them that one person among them has Ebola. The further down the scale of pressure placed upon physical and conceptual space, the greater the correlation of the erraticisms of the “behavioral sink”. During instances where these erraticisms are expected but not witnessed, it may simply be a matter of time at issue combined with the perceived belief that the pressure will eventually be relieved. As for the comic, I don’t really take it seriously. I just hope other people do not as well.
Comment by Gabriel Martin on May 3, 2010 at 8:25pm
Comment by A.V.Koshy on May 3, 2010 at 10:25pm
i agree iron
what do you think of act nine
i think it's crazy, lightning never strikes the same palce twice or strike elsewherein a way you dont expect it to
how can one foresee it
if one cant foresee it what can one prepare for
human igenuity is not developed enough yet ,couldnt predict even the four recent major calamities
or 9/11
sorry since i cant argue with you im going off at a tangent
but hopefully a relevant one
what we need is not preparedness for disaster or picking up the pieces
but for something else
Comment by Iron Helix on May 3, 2010 at 11:47pm
What i found humorous about act nine was the quote: Isinzi nti be sha. The crowd does not lie — Burundian proverb

So if the crowd does not lie, what does that say about the crowd panicking? The "crowd" is simply a response to stimuli. To try and control a response is indeed futile, because for it to be effective in the long run, you would have to have foreseen every stimulus and created a plan for such contingencies. Civilization as we know it exists only because of the expense of constant controlled responses of increasing the complexity dynamic. Instead of ameliorating the effects of every stimuli society comes across (at great expense) through increased complexity and "band-aid" responses, perhaps what is needed is an application of the stimuli by society for the purpose of "hardening the individual" (as opposed to softening the blow).

An example of this kind of thinking is the typical greenhouse plant. By providing a greenhouse environment, ideal conditions are made for plant growth and productivity. Successive generations of greenhouse plants become more adept to the environment of the greenhouse. However, if the greenhouse environment is lost, either by the plant being removed from the greenhouse, or the greenhouse being destroyed in some fashion, the plant's survivability is minimal. What was meant to be a way of creating ever more productive plant life ends in complete loss of the genetic strain of what was inevitably a fragile existence. Outside the greenhouse, plant life continues, as having been constantly exposed to harsh conditions, it must adapt to an equally harsh environment (the stimulus). Thus, in the end, hardening of the individual (stimulus) ends in a more prolonged success than simply softening the blow (response).

Is that what you were looking for? :)


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