Introduction: Seeing the Swarm

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
Mark Twain

What determines our group behavior? Each of our nations has political parties, religions, militaries, unions, and such, with leaders who plan our actions. But do our leaders’ decisions always determine what we end up doing? If so, that would explain why some of us get rich or strong while others don’t.

However, order can sometimes emerge without an order-giver.

Take traffic jams. On a highway full of fast-moving cars, we might enter a jam, yet on leaving it we don’t see anything that might have caused it. Why? Some incidents—an accident, a stalled car, lots of cars coming in from a merging lane—obviously cause traffic. But even someone braking just a little too sharply might cause a problem.

Any slowdown on a highway full of fast-moving cars might trigger a persistent jam of slow-moving cars. Cars entering the jam will slow down. Cars exiting it will speed up. So the jam’s front erodes while its rear builds. But while a driver on reaching its front can speed up, the driver right behind won’t speed up as fast—to avoid collision. So even after a triggering incident clears up, a jam might persist. And it can move backward down the road if it engulfs at least as many fast cars at its rear as it poops slow cars out its front.

So when we hit a jam, its triggering incident might have happened miles ahead and hours before. Various cars will enter and leave the jam, but it might persist for hours. To a brain scientist, that’s like a memory of the original incident. To a physicist, it’s like a shock wave, a ripple effect traveling back down the highway.

Thus, not everything that our groups do is something that our leaders directed us to do, or that we each planned to do. Network forces can drive us to do things that none of us intend.

What, though, about group actions more complex than traffic jams?

Take termites. Some of their species build intricate nests, with underground fungus farms, nurseries, and a maze of tunnels and air ducts. Millions of termites might live in such a nest; and without it, they die. Yet they don’t build it because their queen tells them what to do. She’s an egg-maker, not an order-giver. Termites don’t have clever leaders—or leaders of any kind. None of them is in charge, and none of them plan what they do, yet their actions still fit together into a complex network essential to their survival. Their group does things that none of them plan, foresee, intend, or even notice.

Like a traffic jam, a termite colony persists, even though various termites might enter and leave it (by being born into then dying within it)—except that instead of persisting for hours it might persist for decades. It, too, is like a memory, like a ripple effect—but traveling down through time. And like a traffic jam, no one has to plan that.

To a biologist, both jams of cars and colonies of termites might be at least a little bit like life-forms. In a way, both can be born and both can die, and, in a sense, both can persist for a while regardless of what their parts might think—or even whether they think at all.

A traffic jam is a little like a simple cell that lives on roads. A termite colony, too, is like a cell. However it doesn’t persist for a while merely by happenstance; it’s far more complex. It organizes its parts, and it builds things to help itself persist, and by doing so it acts to persist itself. It’s self-organizing. Millions of termites work together to ensure their joint survival, but no termite plans that, nor controls it, nor is even aware of it.

Might we form a similar life-like network, perhaps some sort of human swarm? If so, like a termite colony, such a thing might obey its own network forces, regardless of who leads us, or what we intend, believe, desire, or perhaps even notice. Were we to form such a thing, how much of our group behavior might it explain? What might make such a thing ‘life-like?’ What might we say about its ‘physics?’ That’s what this book is about. Call it swarm physics.

our dilemma

Each of the first six chapters covers one topic: our food supply, our divisions of labor, our raw material and energy resources, our economies, our educational, health, and mental resources. Each one also introduces two network forces. The penultimate chapter examines what all those network forces may mean for the definition of life itself; then it uses that to examine whether we may form something larger than ourselves. The last chapter summarizes the book, discusses how we change, and outlines our possible near future.