On Crowds and Mobs

In middle school, I read an absolutely terrifying short story called The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson. People in a small town gather to ritualistically stone a person to death every year. The person is chosen by a lottery. Fun!

As a pre-teen, the only thing I extracted from reading this story was outraged horror directed mostly at whoever designed the curriculum. Then I forgot about it after reading Animal Farm, which perhaps 5% of the class understood to be a political book, and everybody else to be about psychotic barn animals.

As a sage adult, I see now that The Lottery was fairly heavy handed commentary on herd mentality.

In You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier spends times describing how becoming a part of the hive can affect personhood. He also discusses crowd wisdom and behavior (or lack thereof). A few months ago, while I was reading The Master Algorithm, I highlighted a passage about relational learning models and how they are related to the behavior of large groups of people. And while I was reading that, my father was partly through his retirement project of reading all of Asimov’s Foundation novels…

In Asimov’s Foundation (which I have read, just not recently), Hari Seldon, the protagonist and mathematician, hatches psychohistory. While one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people can predict the general flow of future events (ironically, I plucked this summary from Wikipedia- the product of a crowd).

In You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier cites Surowiecki, who wrote a book called The Wisdom of The Crowds.

Surowiecki proposes four principles in his book, framed from the perspective of the interior dynamics of the crowd. He suggests there should be limits on the ability of members of the crowd to see how others are about to decide on a question, in order to preserve independence and avoid mob behavior.

He also shares the perspective of Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has argued that applications of statistics, such as crowd wisdom schemes, should be divided into four quadrants. He defines the dangerous “Fourth Quadrant” as comprising problems that have both complex outcomes and unknown distributions of outcomes. He suggests making that quadrant taboo for crowds.

And finally, Pedro Domingos in the Master Algorithm:

…the law of large numbers ensures that even if individuals are unpredictable, whole societies aren’t. Relational learning reveals why this is not the case. If people were independent, each making decisions in isolation, societies would indeed be predictable, because all those random decisions would add up to a fairly constant average. But when people interact, larger assemblies can be less predictable than smaller ones, not more. If confidence and fear are contagious, each will dominate for a while, but every now and then an entire society will swing from one to the other.

A similar theme throughout.

It feels like Twitter. It feels like Facebook. And it feels all too familiar in that problems with complex outcomes and unknown distributions (should we socialize healthcare? should we go to war? who is an American?) are being litigated in digital spaces where people are being influenced by others constantly. That sense that you can’t get a moment to sit and think is quite real. People used to read newspapers once a day- perhaps for thirty minutes. Then they’d congregate at the water-cooler or at knitting circles or whatever. Markedly different from how we interact today: with hundreds of people and sometimes thousands of people every day. Like schools of fish, even small interactions seem to affect the whole.

In 2008, I was volunteering for the Obama campaign in Henderson County, Nevada (Las Vegas). I attended my first caucus – and hopefully my last. It was an online maelstrom brought to life, and I remember feeling panicky and horrified as the votes shook out in a newly constructed gymnasium. This was not a thoughtful, sober process. This was a complex process with an erratic distribution of outcomes. Given the length of the American campaign cycle (constant?) and the degree to which people are barraged with persuasive content, the last refuge of quiet civic contemplation should be protected.