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Swarms of extremism

As if the COVID-19 crisis were not enough, we now have swarms of locusts invading us. Clouds of locusts have overrun western India. As with COVID-19, country borders and barriers put up by proud sovereign nations have been crossed without difficulty, as the locusts have travelled from Africa to South Asia.

Swarm intelligence

Are locusts intelligent? Individual locusts are not. However, their swarms are swift, focused, responsive to stimuli and dangerously effective in their depredations. Biologists call this phenomenon ‘swarm intelligence’, where the individuals that make up a colony of living creatures are singularly unintelligent and are driven by programmed instinct, but their collective actions make their entire colony intelligent as an entity by itself. Swarm intelligence is common amongst insects; bees, ants and locusts demonstrate it amply. Yet, it is not unknown amongst higher animals as well. Migrating birds and shoals of fish display high degrees of swarm intelligence too.

How does swarm intelligence work? An important point to note is that they are leaderless. A queen bee is not a royal in our human sense; she is just a vast progeny-producing machine. It is fascinating to see how a shoal of fish, without a ‘king or queen’ fish, when attacked at one flank by a predator, almost instantly displays an avoidance reaction. How did the fish furthest away from the attacked flank know that the shoal was in danger in less than a microsecond and veer away from the predator? Scientists put it down to the fact that within a swarm, individuals are constantly communicating with each other through actions, signals or otherwise, in a binary manner. Through binary communication, the fact that the swarm is in danger reaches all individuals in an instant and thereby, the instant response. Millions and billions of binary communications add up to a sum larger than the whole.

This phenomenon is no biological curiosity. It is the very essence of the logic behind understanding brain function, as also the design of artificial intelligence. If the human brain was considered a colony of independently alive neuron cells, then it can be imagined that all its nuanced thought emerges from simple, binary synapse mediated conversations between individual neurons. The atomisation of complex thinking as emerging from binary signals also lies at the foundation of computer science.

So, what does all this have to do with the peculiar effectiveness of extremist political movements, whether of the right or of the left? They combine swarm intelligence with the more conventional leadership models shown by higher-level animals. We see all around us, for example, the resurgence of powerful right-wing movements, all fuelled by leaders who provide the focus of attention, then upscaled by swarms of followers, engaged in binary conversations. A leader signals something, whether it is the need to distort history, create a false sense of assurance in a faltering economy, fuel hate against somebody, or signal success when strategies fail. From then on, the swarms take over the creating of simple messages, fake news, sloganeering and hate. Individuals down the ladder, shorn of individual capabilities for critical thinking, share messages, amplify them and make hashtags trend.

Is there any political future for the critical, thinking mind then? At first sight, liberals who are ruggedly individualistic are especially unsuited for being a part of any swarm. They reject binary communications, and see their proximate supporters as competitors rather than as part of a larger, coordinated order. Yet leaderless movements are not unknown in the liberal, freedom-loving world either. Think Hong Kong, the Arab Spring, and you have the elements of swarm intelligence backing the flowering and upscaling of pro-freedom movements. Eliminating political locusts is neither practical nor desirable. What we need are more compassionate, thinking and inclusive locusts.

T. R. Raghunandan is former Secretary, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, Karnataka, and former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayat Raj, Government of India

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 3:26:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/swarms-of-extremism/article31773496.ece

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