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Friday, August 16, 2013

Public Transportation: What Humans Do Best Is Not Swarming

Posted by on Fri, Aug 16, 2013 at 9:22 AM

Back in 2007, Tim Keck, this paper's publisher, handed me this NYT article, "From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm," by Carl Zimmer, a popular science writer. The subject of the piece was a kind of social behavior, swarming, that ants and certain birds seem to do better than humans. Here is the nut:

Americans spend a 3.7 billion hours a year in congested traffic. But you will never see ants stuck in gridlock.

Army ants, which Dr. Couzin has spent much time observing in Panama, are particularly good at moving in swarms. If they have to travel over a depression in the ground, they erect bridges so that they can proceed as quickly as possible.

“They build the bridges with their living bodies,” said Dr. Couzin, a mathematical biologist at Princeton University and the University of Oxford. “They build them up if they’re required, and they dissolve if they’re not being used.”

The reason may be that the ants have had a lot more time to adapt to living in big groups. “We haven’t evolved in the societies we currently live in,” Dr. Couzin said.

There was something that bugged me about this article, something that just did not seem right, something that went/bent a little like this: Is "Instinct to Swarm" saying that traffic jams are just natural? If so, is it then really saying (at a deeper and darker level) that traffic jams are not political? And if so, we had to see the core politics of this line of thinking: Traffic jams have nothing to do with the fact that there are too many cars on the road but with the fact that humans lack the necessary instinct to master the form of social behavior that's proper to traffic harmony...

Six years after reading Zimmer's troubling article, I read this passage in Martin A. Nowak's 2011 book SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed:
Put 400 chimpanzees in economy class on a seven-hour flight, and they would stumble off the plane with bitten ears, missing fur and bleeding limbs. Yet millions of us tolerate being crammed together in this way so we can roam about the planet.
What first surprised me about this chimps on a plane business is that it was identical to what the sociobiologist Sarah Hrdy famously wrote in the opening chapter of her 2009 book Mothers and Others, and yet there's no such attribution in SuperCooperators. But that is another matter for another time. And besides, SuperCooperators is a good read (it provided me with a theory for forgiveness), and Nowak, who is a mathematician, has done great and very controversial work with the biologist E.O. Wilson on group selection theory.

But here is my point. On my way to work a few days a go, I saw the Link train orderly enter the Columbia Street Station, open its doors quickly, release and accept passengers neatly, and depart smoothly. At that moment I recalled the chimps on the plane thing I had just read in SuperCooperators, and also saw the traffic on MLK, and finally there was the answer to Zimmer's swarming: Humans may not be great with traffic, but we are good at sharing small and crammed spaces. Because each of us can easily tolerate others, strangers, crying babies, we can sit peacefully in a container and move together in a mode that's even more efficient than swarming. Swarming is expensive. Each participant in a swarm is burning its own energy. When humans share a space, we can move without each participant burning so much energy. Cars are then doubly inefficient: they are run by an animal that's not really made for swarming, and they burn a lot of energy in the process.


Comments (11) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Can't you just argue normative Western narrative for ONCE??
I liked this post, though I do not like crying babies, we will have to work on that one (soundproofing is a good use of non-degradable shit).
Posted by michael bell on August 16, 2013 at 9:52 AM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 2
Why didn't you see the real politics of the piece? It has nothing to do with "too many cars on the road" and everything to do with too many people in the world. We were not developed in an overcrowded society as we are hurtling ourselves into, if we're not there already. Both the things you lament and support is a symptom of that. Cars on road = overcrowding. Micro units = overcrowding.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on August 16, 2013 at 10:00 AM · Report this
fletc3her 3
I don't know if it's a question of driver education, natural instinct, or lack of information, but many traffic jams occur for no good reason or last much longer than necessary.

However, the same can be said for some crowds. Think Black Friday or Bumbershoot. Or even getting off an airplane. Nobody loses an ear, but the whole operation would go a lot faster if those with bags in hand quickly exited. The lack of cooperation slows things down for everyone.
Posted by fletc3her on August 16, 2013 at 10:03 AM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 4
Google Cars.

Once we have cars with intelligence, they will swarm for us.

Every sq. in. of roadway can be used.

In fact, who needs roadways.

Why don't we just unpave the roads and leave it as gravel and grassland and use SUVs as SUVS!

Off road.
Off grid.

Swarming the suburbs is the natural way to live.


The central city is obsolete and in the way.

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on August 16, 2013 at 10:25 AM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 5

Speaking of energy. Kids get it. Elon Musk doesn't.

Kids 4 Hydrogen

Founded in 2004, Kids 4 Hydrogen is an educational outreach nonprofit organization affiliated with Merit Academy. Kids 4 Hydrogen’s goal is to lead America in developing a sustainable energy infrastructure that will meet the world’s needs in 2050. By giving demonstrations of how fuel cells work and presenting the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on well-publicized tours, we hope to encourage people to get on our waiting list to purchase fuel cell vehicles to move towards a sustainable hydrogen economy.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on August 16, 2013 at 10:34 AM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 6

And how big should a city, town or business be?

Dunbar says...150!!!

Dunbar has found 150 to be the sweet spot for hunter-gatherer societies all over the world. From the Bushmen of Southern Africa to Native American tribes, a typical community is about 150 people. Amish and Hutterite communities — even most military companies around the world — seem to follow the same rule.…

The city is unnatural.

We cannot use it.

We only have space in our brains for 150 people.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on August 16, 2013 at 10:40 AM · Report this
St. Beretta 7
I never thought I'd see a Mudede post with the words "here is my point."
Posted by St. Beretta on August 16, 2013 at 11:09 AM · Report this
@6 Yeah, but the self sufficient, nomadic, mega-families wont work with suburbs [as evidenced by the failures of various rural experimental communes.] Each group of 150 is its own state within the super dense pod city. Everything outside the walls is a wild commons used for subsistence hunting/fishing/foraging. You cant accumulate much power without agriculture so the the nativist/tribal mindset wont devolve into classism, racism etc.
Posted by carsten coolage on August 16, 2013 at 11:21 AM · Report this
@3, I thought it was the people who couldn't get their bags out of overhead storage quickly who slow the plane exit more than anything.

People are much more cooperative in tight spaces on buses and trains not because they feel calm, but rather the situation would be more difficult to deal with if they lost their cool.
Posted by neo-realist on August 16, 2013 at 12:48 PM · Report this
Timrrr 10
Ahh... but the starting deception lies here:
Traffic is not a swarm.

Swarms are large groups of individuals moving with purpose toward the same goal or destination. So in this comparison, the transit commuters have a much more swarm-like agenda --and hence more swarm-like behavior-- than their car encased fellows.

Traffic is not a swarm. It is a group of individuals each with individual goals and individual destinations. That they are all moving in a similar direction should not be confused for moving with a similar purpose.

We have traffic jams because the motivations of individual actors are at odds and/or in competition with one another. The traffic becomes jammed not because humans are bad at swarming. Rather it is because humans in cars are NOT swarming; not acting together, not acting to arrive the same place.

Whereas the humans on bus or train are doing exactly that for the duration of their commute.
Posted by Timrrr on August 16, 2013 at 1:11 PM · Report this
treacle 11
Yeah, I'm with Timrrr@10 -- Driving is very little like swarming. Yes, everyone is following different agenda, but also they are constrained to very specific routes. Swarming ants, OTOH, get to walk wherever they want, avoiding obstacle as necessary. If cars drove wherever they wanted, avoiding whatever obstacles, we'd have tons more pedestrian deaths and car accidents.

Anyway, whatever. I'm down with the energy efficiency argument. I can't wait til gas goes up to $10 a gallon and everyone swarms to public transit, and demands even more.
Posted by treacle on August 16, 2013 at 4:07 PM · Report this

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