what the flock

Occasionally something will pop up on the internet and just be everywhere all at once. And then, gone. Facebook is fascinating for this. Someone will post a video or photo that’ll grab your attention. Then, someone else in your network, who is completely unrelated to the first person, will post it too. Then that video or photo will suddenly appear on blogs, might get a mention in the media, circulate around for a few days, then … gone. Everything goes back to normal chatter for a couple of days until the next thing of interest does the rounds.

Something just popped up on my facebook page today that seemed to perfectly encapsulate that whole situation. It’s a video of starlings flying through the sky in the most mesmerising patterns. Here it is (… oh and it is supposed to be jerky at the start):



This collective pattern of action is called flocking behaviour. It’s one of those phenomena from nature that just speaks the beauty of cooperative endeavours. How could a website based on the premise of networked connections not be smitten by that?

In a nutshell, this behaviour comes out of many individuals following only very basic guidelines or rules to their actions. But collectively, something amazing begins to happen. As a group of component parts they begin to behave as a whole. And this is referred to as emergent behaviour. Emergent behaviours are reminiscent of that old chestnut – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And it’s the sort of thing that attracts deeper study because it seems to reflect human activities. The common reference is the financial market, with all its millions of little buying and selling behaviours amassing together to build in giant waves of euphoria and panic creating booms, runs on stocks, investment flight and other scary and seemingly chaotic rhythms that reek havoc on economies.

It is also extremely interesting for computer simulations. You set a couple of very simple rules for objects to perform, then set them loose to behave as a group and watch what patterns emerge. The outcomes are almost always organic and evocative of natural behaviours. Click on the image below for an example of a little program that you can manipulate and watch. The objects are invariably called ‘boids’, a mashup of birds and … um … something that sounds roboty and computer-ish.

Sometimes the little memes that arise on the internet – memes are just little ideas that spread rapidly through culture – they are just like flocking behaviour. Swarming together, they amass a certain presence and zip around all over the place, eventually disintegrating into fragments and disappearing.

The beauty of this behaviour in its natural setting is a wonderous thing. At its essence, this is cooperative behaviour, each individual mindful of its neighbours’ action, simply working in response to it. And as the group gets bigger, all working cooperatively in this way, a gorgeously organic flow of oscillating, vibrating energy emerges. If the mindfulness of each individual is on ideas of caring, sharing, beauty, connection and all the joyous feelings of life, as opposed to competitive one-upmanship, greed and exploitation, what a truly delightful adventure across the skies that would surely be.


Next stop: neo-Romanticism.


(published on Golden ArtNet)

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