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.
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.
"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.