Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Two or Three or Four or Several Hundred Heads Are Better than One

So I was riding the bus this morning. I love being on the bus despite the amount of time it takes to get where I want to go because of the interaction I am able to have with people I would otherwise never come into contact with. Of course, sometimes you meet people you would have been totally happy to never meet or speak to but often there are small, wonderous little moments that affirm your faith in people and reveal our quirkiness as a species.

So I'm sitting on the bus and two gentlemen board and take their seats. One asks the bus driver "Do you know where the Social Security Office is? It's downtown, right?" The bus driver tells him that she has no idea where the Social Security Office is located. Then two of the passengers, both Black women, tell him at almost the exact same time that the Office is located on Cameron Road, not downtown. Then the conversation turns to how they can get to the office riding the bus. As the passengers begin to talk about it, I think to myself, "I've never even needed to go the Social Security Office in my car, let alone the bus, guess I can't help these guys, oh well."

Then I hear one woman say, "Well you can take the 320."

The other woman responds, "Yeah, but then they'll have to walk a little ways before they get to the office. The 339 will drop them off right in front of it."

She then turns to one of the men and says, "You can take the 339, but you got to get to the mall, the Highland Mall."

Suddenly, before I can think about it I hear myself say, "Well, the 15 stops downtown and that'll take you right to the transfer station at the Highland Mall." I had forgotten I even knew that and suddenly I was a part of the conversation, the building of this new knowledge that all of us, a woman in nursing scrubs, three black women, and two scruffy looking white guys had created by pooling our collective wisdom. Silly as it sounds, I actually felt really good having been a part of the process.

Interestingly enough, this ragtag group of bus riders had just demonstrated the scientific/social phenomenon of "emergence." According to one of my favorite podcasts, Radio Lab and Wikipedia, emergence refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. An example would be looking at how ants or bees, relatively simple creatures with unsophisticated forms of communication, are able to build architecturally complex structures like their colonies (see the termite "cathedral" produced by a termite colony pictured above for a perfect example of emergence in the natural world). In a recent book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, author James Surowiecki discusses the aggregation of information in groups, resulting in decisions that, he argues, are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group. According to Radio Lab, what separates us from the ants is that as human beings we are aware of our ability to do this and often do this for advantage as a species.

I was totally bowled over by this theory of emergence, not just because it demonstrates that the practice of cooperation is a central part of the structure of the natural world, but because the science of emergence demonstrates how the world "organizes itself into being without a plan...or a leader." The logic of capitalism and dictatorships or even the need for leadership or the state is actually sort of antithetical to how much of the natural world and human beings as a part of the natural world operate. Much of what we do from giving bus directions to building cities and communities is done without the need for a master plan or a leader telling us what to do. We cooperate on our own because it helps to survive and because as social beings we need each other in both a practical and emotional sense.

So it turns out that when it comes to the best form of governance for human beings, Mother Nature seems to support anarchism.


1 comment:

frank said...

i love radio lab. you should go here and see some photos i took this weekend http://flickr.com/photos/frankalready/