Occupy Wall Street, Swarm Behavior & Self-Organized Criticality

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!

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