Fred LaSor: The hive mind at work

A flock of starlings in flight is called a murmuration, a particularly apt name if you ever find yourself beneath one and hear tens of thousands of wings sweep through the autumn air in unison. They whirl in densely packed groups and are so numerous and coordinated one gets the impression from a little distance that they are guided by a single mind, not thousands of individuals flying with only inches separating them.

Internet videos make it clear a murmuration is more like flowing water than a flock of birds such as the geese we see migrating seasonally overhead. Like flowing water, the starlings are all going in the same direction, at the same speed, until something — often a hawk looking for a meal — causes them all to turn in unison at the same rate.

This ability to move in co-ordinated fashion is also seen in schools of fish: sweeping, turning, darting to and fro as if centrally controlled, but, again, made up of individuals acting independently.

Scientists working with unmanned drones have come up with a way of controlling large groups of quadcopters in a fashion similar to murmurations of starlings or schools of fish. They do it by teaching each one to avoid colliding with anything in its surroundings, yet having each retain its capability to take specific instructions that allow swarms of drones to put on light displays depicting a waving flag or some other well-known symbol.

Such co-ordinated flight requires two types of computer instructions: general rules of movement (don’t collide with your neighbor), and the ability to receive specific instruction on their assigned location in the sky at any given point in time. This is sometimes called a hive mind, reminiscent of a colony of bees all working toward a common goal, but each with an individual task.

It occurred to me recently that humans exhibit traits of the hive mind at times. An individual can go about his activity as a movie actor or high school teacher on a daily basis, yet still retain the ability to spin in an instant in mindless unison with others of his or her cohort to march in lock-step in a demonstration, or parrot the same message as others in his or her group, or give a duplicate statement to an interviewer, all without apparent outside direction. At times, they can act in unison with mind-numbing brutality that they would most likely not exhibit as an individual — think Antifa, for example, as a horde displaying all the attributes of a hive mind, but with a destructive outcome.

A gay relative told me before the 2016 presidential election that she was worried she would be locked up in a concentration camp if Trump were elected. This surprised me, as I had never heard him say anything to indicate he disliked gays or had any intention of rounding them up and interning them. But when I heard it from another gay person, I realized it was not a random fantasy on her part: she was mouthing a story she had heard elsewhere, and others in her cohort were doing the same. Like a murmuration, they were swaying and turning in unison in response to a shared stimulus, even though that stimulus was based on a false premise.

The women’s march on Washington was another example of the hive mind responding to an outside (and false) premise. Thousands of women moved in unison in response to a prediction (untrue, as it has turned out) that Trump would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Schools of fish and murmurations of starlings are miracles of nature. Political hives, not so much.

Fred LaSor retired to the Carson Valley 15 years ago.


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