Nice piece again by Mark Buchanan in NS which suggests that it’s going to be possible to predict the significant and sudden changes that characterise complex systems such as human groups and societies and to do so just without mass observation.
Thanks to work by physicist Robert Wicks at Warwick University, it seems possible that simply by sampling a handful of flock/HERD members we’ll be able to spot the big changes of direction that are about to happen.
The point being that in a disordered state, an individual particle/agent’s behaviour gives little or no information about the behaviour of other particles; however, as a system approaches a phase transition, the information that one particle reveals about the others around it increases.
As Buchanan points out,
“In crowds, the precursors to a transformation from ordinary, regular movement to a dangerous, turbulent state or stampede can be detected mathematically by video analysis, but only with extensive computation on the movements of many people. The new technique could make practical detection much easier…perhaps with cameras tracking only a few individuals….in a crowd of say 1000 people, observations on as few as five people might be sufficient”
But don’t get Gladwellian about this: it’s not that the ones sampled are more influential or important than the others, it’s just something which all/most particles/agents within the system will experience as a phase transition approaches.