The Key to Understanding Tahrir Square: Swarm Intelligence

SwarmingThe Arab Revolutions change everything. Or at least: a lot. We have to reconsider the entire picture. It is a geopolitical paradigm shift. But I cannot even start to tackle all this. Let’s start with trying to begin to understand this new form of self organising protest. A while ago I made some notes on ‘swarm intelligence’. I dropped them as misty, premature musings. Now they make sense to me, in a very concrete way. Here my notes (written somewhere end 2009):

Recently intelligent behaviour of swarms (ants, bees, birds, bats and fish, but also mammals) has been studied and this sort of survival of and by big quantities has been called ‘swarm intelligence’. It truly is one of the wonders of nature. Herd mentality is a well known word to point to the same phenomenon but it is old fashioned: the individual is intelligent (at best) but the mass is stupid (by essence). It is a basic ideological presumption of much ethico-political philosophy, from Seneca to the present. Swarm intelligence is a contemporary concept and reverses the logic: the swarm is more intelligent than small groups of intelligent animals. Gnus crossing the river en masse are more successful against crocodiles than the more intelligent but small groups of zebras. A swarm of small birds is swirling so close at such speed that a prey bird can seriously hurt itself if it dives into it. In a similar vein small fish move so fast and close that much bigger predators can’t get a prey as it behaves as mist, as an ever changing cloud. Maybe it is this swarm intelligence that could save us. Maybe this swarm intelligence will somehow help to cross this maelstrom of rapids and heavy waters humanity has ahead; by being such a mass of interconnected creatures. But how can we think that massive anonymity of the human herd — a herd of say 10 billion people — as a saving grace?

Well, Tahrir Square gives an idea. Small in comparison with the scale we will need, but huge, gigantic, never seen. Ten of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Nineteen days, nineteens nights. The biggest and longest mass event ever, I think. And, from the side of the masses: peaceful, non-violent. A logistical nightmare turned into a fairy tale. Well, no fairy tale: a miracle (almost biblical, like the miraculous proliferation of breads). Thousands of people to be fed, to be cared for, waste, human waste, wounded people — a field hospital was installed in a side street — and urgent and crucial decisions to be made at every moment, all this. . . . Besides the Coptic Christian who laid down his coat so his Muslim co-protestor could kneel and pray, or the guy who united the sign of the cross and the crescent in front of a camera on Aljazeera, or the women chanting and leading the crowds, the children leading the crowds, all this…

This is it! This is the swarm intelligence we will need! Oh God, was I pessimistic when I made my first notes: ‘So far, we see no sign for hope: we use more 24/24 electronic gadgets, more cars, etc. The exponential growth of air travel is expanding our personal ecological footprint at a pace that ridicules all our attempts to sort out garbage or take public transport, etc. etc. No, it will have to come from elsewhere. Slum intelligence as swarm intelligence? Swarm intelligence will be massively important to survive the 21st century’.

But I could not see a light, however hard I tried: ‘But will the quarrel of the villagers, the identity politics of the quarters, and neighbourhoods, the factions and interests, not foreclose this? Individualism has become one of our biggest enemies, at least in ecological terms. 10 billion people deserve a car. And they all have the right to travel by plane, no? Logic, Watson. But this madness needing 10 planets or something like that. Human (post?) history… a tale told by an idiot. Or the birth pangs of transhumanism? Or else, a vibrant planet of slums? The beat, the heat, the creativity of a new young urbanised world population. Maybe. Swarm intelligence it should be. But so far we have not come further than ostrich policy, at best.’

Well, again, Tahrir Square has changed the entire equation. Swarm intelligence was just a metaphor for the power of the interconnected multitude of the Middle East. It is a model for a planetarian multitude to come. A planetarian multitude in the making. It is from the squared circle of Tahrir Square — how beautiful it was, this circle of tents in the middle of the square — that we have to build the theorems and stratagems of a future politics; the politics of globalized, and therefore united humanity. After Tahrir Square there is hope again. This can and should be the beginning of a truly new era. It depends on every single one of us if it will come true.

No, it will not be paradise. Just less hellish. If we are able to bring down all tyrants and all tyrannies and the extremisms they breed. This should make fundamentalisms implode. Which will delegitimize neocon Empire even further. As rampant identity politics will wane, so will the legitimacy of the war on terror. Let’s cross our fingers. Because, that is just a start, before we can even begin to tackle the Herculean, cosmic tasks ahead: the ecological and demographic challenges. But how to wake up the European youth? How to wake up the American Youth? How strange it is: that wake-up calls in history tend to come on unexpected times and in unforeseen places. I pray that this is not the end. It is just a beginning. This could be truly awesome. But it depends on all of us. On all of us at once. We have to learn to think and move in sync, without leader, without party, without manual. Swarm Intelligence Now!

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). He has published several books: on contemporary art, experience and modernity, on Walter Benjamin and more recently on architecture, the city and politics. Beside this he published poems, columns, statements, pamphlets and opinion pieces.

His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.