Swarms: Collective Intelligence of the Market Place?

An interesting article concerning swarms appeared in the NYT last Tuesday. Dr. Ian Couzin, a mathematical biologist, offered intriguing explanations of how various swarms actually occur. What all swarms have in common is that their behavior is nothing more than the summation of every individual’s behavior.

Furthermore, the principle guiding the behavior of each individual is the same guiding principle for every other individual in the swarm. That principle or rule can be reduced to a very simple mathematical description. The behavior of each individual is efficient, simple, direct, unthinking, efficient, and immediate.

Different rules and triggering mechanisms apply to different beasties, but the overall effect is simple and geometric. From the outside, there may seem to be intelligence at work; but that is illusory. Seen from the inside, watching any one of the parts, we immediately see the blindness of it all. Although each actor acts with ruthless efficiency, efficiency is not intelligence. Nor is the swarming behavior necessarily in the best interest of the swarm.

The march of the cannibalistic Mormon crickets I found especially intriguing: Keep moving or you will be eaten.

Mormom crickets will gather by the millions and crawl in bands stretching more than five miles long. Dr. Couzin and his colleagues…found that the forces behind cricket swarms are very different from the ones that bring locusts together…When Mormon crickets cannot find enough salt and protein, they become cannibals.”Each cricket itself is a perfectly balanced source of protein,” Dr. Couzin said. “So the crickets, every 17 seconds or so, try to attack the other individuals. If you don’t move, you’re likely to be eaten.”

The reason all this interests me is that it is applicable to collective human activity. People swarm, politically, socially, religiously, and, of course, economically.

Some of you may remember Movie Guy’s hydrologic theory of economics: Just as water flows to the lowest spot of ground, so to does unrestrained and unguided economic activity always race to the bottom, seeking the cheapest labor, the least taxation, the fewest regulations.

A “swarm” theory of economics would be analogous to Movie Guy’s theory—and might actually “sit well” with many economists. Instead of gravity—which is metaphoric–, we might posit something like the following: Each individual seeks the most profit from the least amount of effort. Remind you of those graphs economists like to draw? Unrestrained economic activity is efficient—always mathematical.

Profit is simply the difference between expense and income. Each individual measures the effort required to receive a desired amount of income. Some are happy with little; others climb the corporate ladder. Different parts of the swarm “swirl” or move differently, but all parts are driven by a simple and similar principle: Self-interest.

Seen from the outside, we can see the resultant patterns, the inevitable results.
Consider, for a moment, the problem of energy. For the last half century, the U.S. has repeatedly failed to recast its energy policy.

Or, to put to the matter another way, why did impoverished Iceland make the effort while the U.S. did not? (Iceland is now almost, if not completely, energy self-sufficient—and quite wealthy as a result.)

In terms of swarm theory, Iceland is not more intelligent or more far-sighted than the U.S. Iceland had no alternative but to move in a different direction. It commanded no armies; it had nothing of substance to trade. It moved towards geothermal because it was the only path available. Immediate necessity drives each unit of the swarm.

In short, there is a kind of exorable path that will be taken, regardless on any one individual’s intelligence. Why has the U.S. failed to have a sane energy policy? The answer is simple: There was never an immediate need. Each individual in a swarm responds only to its immediate environment. To move en mass to alternate sources of energy—however wise in the long run—violates the principle of immediate response, violates the principle of immediate self-interest, a violation that would force the individual or unit to act with foresight, something he instinctively will not do. Trying to change the principles of a particular swarm is like trying to push water uphill.

Consider again economic activity in general. It really is no different. Economic activity collects and organizes itself around the cheapest source of profit. To claim anything else is smoke and mirrors. Individuals swarm within corporations—seeking quick and easy profit. Corporations themselves swarm—globally. Each corporation will seek a monopoly. Each corporation will seek the cheapest labor, the lowest taxation, and the fewest regulations, regardless of whether that activity is good for the world or not. Right now, China is the honey pot of the world.

Free marketers love the swarm. In its immediate, unthinking efficiency they see intelligence. Let the market do its business, sans regulations, sans interference. Globalization is nothing more than a world-devouring swarm; each individual or company is acting only in immediate self-interest. All of the excuses for how we are globalizing are merely excuses for allowing each individual or corporation to operate as simply, as mindlessly, and as ruthlessly as possible.

Governments exist to provide wisdom and guidance, to set rules for behavior, to modify swarm behavior. What happens when the principles of the swarm invade and control the government, when the government cannot in any way guide the swarm? Is that not precisely what is happening, both here in the “democratic West” and in communist China? Consequently, we have no energy policy…and China has no environmental policy. With no controls in place, our credit crunch is becoming disastrous.

Remember, that kind of behavior got us into trouble with energy. Swarms have no intelligence. Swarms are efficient in what they do and how they behave. Immediate efficiency is not always a sign of intelligence or wisdom. Blind are the rules of nature; blind still are the rules of physics; blinder still are those who celebrate the swarm as the right model for human activity. How does a swarming species such as us refrain from taking the path that will make its own environment uninhabitable? What kind of intelligence will keep the swarm from being smothered in its own pile of shit?