Monday, August 15, 2011

Cameron, circumstances and priests

The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijna...Image via WikipediaOne of the points of my previous post on how riots spread is Monkey See, Monkey Do.

Or to put it less simply, we are less rational than we would like to think - we act like those around us and as allowed, persuaded, nudged or otherwise cajoled to do by the circumstances in which we find ourselves (the behaviour of other folk being a very key part of those circumstances).

Now, even our nice Mr Cameron (remember the one, when he first became Tory leader, when he seemed more interested in what is right rather than what is Right), knew that.

As HM Opposition are all of a dither to point out, Cameron himself proclaimed "there are connections between circumstances and behaviour" five years ago...

Damn right. Primed with the right conditions, given the right circumstances - you too are at great risk of behaving in a very irrational way. Once again, I point you at Mark Earl's excellent Herd for more on this.

This is really important because once we understand this is what drives behaviour, then we can start on the business of ascribing blame for that behaviour and (rather more importantly) doing something about it.

It's why I am getting increasingly annoyed at the misdirection the Government PR machine is employed in. First every talking head spouted 'criminality' to focus our attention on the outcome. Now that is being replaced by 'moral collapse'. Both make us focus on the outcome. Which is convenient because it's hard to pin the blame on the Government for outcomes. Circumstances and conditions? Now there some Governmental blame can be laid.

So, I had best demonstrate what can turn even good people bad - to act irrationally - if the conditions are set for them. I best show how it's more the context and circumstances to blame and less the moral fibre of the people concerned...

Take for example the study at Princeton Theological Seminary quoted in Malcolm Gladwell's often-bought-but-rarely-looted Tipping Point.

In the story he tells, each student priest is asked "to prepare a short talk on a given Biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it."
Along the way to the presentation each student comes across a man slumped head down, eyes closed, and clearly in some distress.
Obviously being good God-fearing folk (with no doubt all the parental support our dear leader would desire) they stop and help, don't they?

Wouldn't you?

Well. The researchers included three variables: background of the subject - whether they had entered seminary as a way of helping people or not, (2) which parable they were to prepare - several were given the Good Samaritan... and (3) a time context, saying either that they were running several minutes late and should hurry up, or that they were early and had some time to spare.

Guess what?

The only thing that impacted how likely our trainee priests were to stop and help our hapless fallen guy was how late they thought they were running.

In other words whether you were planning to help folk as a vocation, and whether or not you had just been hard at it thinking about the Good Samaritan, mattered little. Their attitudes and feelings were instantly  over-ridden by subtle clues in the environment - in this case being told whether they were running late or not.

 I can't claim to be any better than any of those flawed priests-to-be. I can't claim to be able to resist temptation to act irrationally if the conditions are right - if the circumstances so nudged me. You see, I'm human too. So is David Cameron if the stories of the Bullingdon Club are to be believed.

The good news is I do think there is something your rational selves can do to avoid those contexts.

My guess is many of us would loot in the right (wrong) circumstances. But I'm also pretty sure most of us would employ our rational moments to guide us away from those circumstances.

And that's where the Government - and others bent on behaviour modifying must focus, too.
We can rationally decide to join together with good things in mind - and we can support each other - be good monkeys to be seen and copied, too.

That's how the brooms came out - en masse - for the twitter clean up. We can use social media to find folk thinking positively, too and coordinate and cooperate with them.

Call it rational if you like...
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Monday, August 08, 2011

How riots spread - expressed through the medium of dance

Brixton Footlocker - the morning after (via linniekin, Flickr)
There are two things of significance for me about the London Riots of the last couple of nights (and as I write I hear they have extended to a third night).
The first is how they have been reported; by citizen witnesses; by journalist witnesses and finally as edited by news orgs.

Citizens have delivered a tapestry of fear, anger, concern... reality; Journalists a cooller detachment which lacks the white heat emotion of engagement; News orgs a filtered, cooled, emaciated version of 'the validated truth'.

Always ask whose truth you gaze upon. I may not be able to check or validate every citizen expression of the reality as they see it - but there must be at least as much truth in what they are sharing as in the cold, dispassionate glance of the edited news org version.

Heady, fast moving times. They require of us that we take responsibility - with crap filters on - for what we choose to pass on.

But enough of the messages, what of the behaviour?

Why have these riots happened now? How could the new tools of coordination and cooperation lead to a truly landscape-shifting revelation for those taking part?

I should say right off I'm not a fan of theft, violence, arson or even of keeping folk from a good night's sleep.

However, the group dynamics and peer-to-peer permissions and mimicry that the human behaviour of rioting demonstrate, do hold a grim fascination for me.

So, why now? Those dismissing the London Riots as one long acquisition spree by thieves fail to answer that simple question.

If greed were the key, why this summer, not last? The answer may lay in a longer term period of joblessness and hopelessness - yes the result of policy decisions.
But it also took:
  • A crowd
  • A state of agitated excitement,
  • The ability to organise.
  • Permission to act out of line (in a co-ordinated way)
These factors came together on Saturday night in Tottenham.

But they could have come together in another crowd with another cause to be excited.

What of our flock turner? Someone has to start a riot. Someone has to grant the permission to act out of line. And in so doing they grant permission to those around them to act, entirely irrationally, in a way they wouldn't ordinarily behave. It may be one person at first - and then another - then a clump join - and then the crowd joins...

This video goes some way to illustrating that - through the medium of dance...

Once permission to behave differently (and badly) was granted (we're back to the riots now) off it spread.
We do what the monkey next to us does - we are Homo Mimicus rather than Homo Sapien as Mark Earls (@herdmeister on twitter) author of Herd, puts it.

We copy - Oh so readily. Particularly if someone has prepared the ground as effectively as the economy and The Government have contrived to do. The conditions are right.

If a Government unit on behavioural economics had planned this nudge themselves, they couldn't have hoped for greater success:
Agitate folk through economic and policy means - give agitated folk a reason to gather - and then all you need is the 'dancing man' to give them a nudge.

Monkey business spread rapidly across London.
Tonight? More parts of London? More Uk cities? (Unfortunately while drafting this post I heard of outbreaks of violence in Leeds and Birmingham to add to London's third night of troubles.

Next: More European cities? MoreUS Cities?
Riotous behaviour is Herd behaviour like any other human behaviour: As hard to identify how to stop as it is to start.

Mark's book has a chapter on riots - and some tips for cops. They focus on breaking the channels of communication (in this case blackberry messenger and twitter), moving swiftly to break up crowds the moment they asssemble, and arresting anyone for even the slightest infringements (removing any hint of permission to act out of line).
And when equilibrium is restored - of course - go looking for the root causes and act on them.
In short, take away the ability to organise, the gathering of agitated folk, the permission to act out of line and once all those are dealt with, the reasons for the agitation.

In 1981 when conditions were similar it took broadcast media to spread the news.And there was no tool of on-the-go coordination - not even mobile phones.

Now everyone taking part carries with them a way of coordinating on the fly. No wonder the authorities are concerned. Trouble can now be organised, directed and refocused in a decentralised way making it exceptionally hard to deploy against for the police.

They've learned from the Arab Spring. Monkey see, monkey do. That's as much of an answer to 'why now' as anything I've seen.

The decentralised 'bad guys' are able to dissipate and reassemble too fast and in too great numbers for the police to act. There are tales this evening of shop keepers boarding themselves inside their shops, having reported mobs outside to the police, only to be told the police don't have the bodies to act.

My guess is that if we don't get a night or two of heavy rain to break the cycle the army will be on the streets by the end of week. And at that point we in the UK may feel a bit glib pointing at 'heavy-handed' responses in Arab lands.

Those at the helm in this and other countries should be less concerned about acts of theft and vandalism and rather more about what the participants are learning.

IF those intent on riotous assembly are indeed coordinating through the social tools now at our disposal, what happens after they are done with expressing anger and frustration through fire and theft?

What if they realise the true power they wield?

What if they do to The Government what they did to The News of The World?

I'd stick a cork in the chianti and get the next flight home if I were on Her Majesty's front bench.

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Monday, August 01, 2011

Size - not growth rate - matters for communities

Tokyo - by
I read all the claims about the rapid growth of google+ ‘use’ and I still feel unmoved.

Perhaps it’s for the reason that I put ‘use’ in quote marks: Google + feels very much in its nascent, gave it a try, walked off, may-be-back-if-enough-other-folk-find-it-interesting-to-remind-me-about-it-later, phase.

Which, to be fair, is how I started with Twitter. But also with a hundred other new kids on the block.

But perhaps my reticence is also because of a remarkable scaling effect which happens in communities. I say communities, it looks to me like this has only been applied to cities thus far, so bear with me...

I came across an interesting article by Marcus Du Sautoy at the weekend. This is the chap who has written and is presenting the current BBC series The Code (  – which looks at the mathematics which appear to govern, well pretty much everything.

Du Sautoy cites the work of British-born theoretical physicist Geoffrey West who used maths to discover fundamental laws governing cities. 
“ can be understood by a single magic number: 1.15. Each time the population of a city increases by 100 per cent (in other words doubles) the social and economic factors scale up by 115 per cent.

“So, if you compare a city with a population of one million people to a city of two million, then instead of the larger city having twice as many restaurants, concert halls, libraries and schools, you find instead an extra 15 per cent on top of what you’d expect. Even salaries are affected by this curious ratio...”
In other words the value of being part of a community (my derivation) grows by an extra 15% each time that community doubles in size.

And while Google+ has reached its first 10m users in a spectacularly fast period of time (16 days compared with Twitter’s 780 and Facebook’s 852) its value to the members of that community is similarly spectacularly limited by its relative lack of scale.

Let’s try the maths (not my strongest point so feel free to point out flaws and correct me:
Based on Facebook having 640m users and Twitter having 175m (Wikipedia August 1, 2011). Then the social/economic advantage conferred over Google + users is: approximately 200% greater for Twitter users and 230% greater for Facebook users.

Simply – Facebook and Twitter ought to prove at least twice as valuable to current users thanks to the scaling up of value delivered by the sheer size of community.

Growth rate has no impact on that.

So until we have a Google + with at least 100m users (and likely twice that) there’s little chance of it delivery the user experience either Twitter or Facebook can.

The dodgy maths bit:
How did I get to this? I took 10m as the base value (Google + users after 16 days). I doubled this, then doubled the outcome and doubled that (etc) until I reach the scale of Twitter and then Facebook (an approximate in the case of Twitter).

Taking ‘1’ as my base value for ‘social-economic factors’ generated, I multiplied by our magic number (1.15), for every time the base community doubled in size.
eg 10m users x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 640m (= Facebook).

Therefore social-economic factors multiply thus: 1 x 1.15 x 1.15 x 1.15 x 1.15 x1.15 x 1.15 = 2.3 (therefore a growth of 230% compared with original 10m strong community).

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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?