Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Smart Swarm: how understanding flocks, schools, and colonies can make us better at communicating, decision making, and getting things done

by Peter Miller

While this book is briskly readable and thoroughly interesting, it suffers from the disease of hyperbole that afflicts many of the lengthily titled books referenced in its text. Books such as How Everything's Connected Because of YouTube and Why That's Going to Save Humanity Maybe Not as We Know It but Probably Better Because Ashton Kutcher Is Awesome Even if He Did Quit Tweeting, which I've made up, but you probably know what kind of book I'm lampooning.

The trap is that of the Enlightenment. We're figuring out all these new things, and it's looking as if we'll be able to solve every problem ever if we just apply this or that new paradigm in the right way. But no matter how much you fix stuff, people will find a way to fuck it up anyway — amiright?

All in all, though, it's nowhere near as bad as the connection-is-everything wisdom-of-the-crowd internet boosterism to which it irritatingly and persistently gives shout outs. The actual science bits, about analyzing swarm and colony behaviors, how they *sometimes* apply to human situations, are quite nice. The caveat, however, is delayed too long. Following the final chapter on the downside of swarms (for example, when they become mobs and crush people to death), the conclusion is very pragmatic and does a good job of couching the amazing discoveries in some much needed realism, but why is that only at the end?

It's not all at the end; there are a few earlier hints that termites are not our multitudinous messiahs. My favorite hint is when he talks about the movie Minority Report (a book first, of course, which he fails to mention) and points out how those future cops make very effective use of swarm-y robots to find Tom Cruise but the knowledge they needed to make the "spyders" clearly hasn't led to the elimination of poverty or a generally positive transformation of society.

But it's a good book. Self-organizing, collective, decentralized behavior in animals is truly fascinating and fertile ground, and this is an excellent introduction for those with low to medium science prowess. I recommend this book. It just has a few things that are particularly irritating to me. But they can be overlooked. In a way, I'm glad for its shortcomings, as I've found my new peeve word (a phrase, technically): not unlike.