Complete surrender to the bottom is not what embracing swarm is about.

Let me retell a story that I told in Out of Control, a book that details the advantages, disadvantages, quirks, and consequences of complex systems governed by swarmlike processes. This story illustrates the power of a swarm, but it has a new ending, which shows how dumb power is not always enough.

In 1990 about 5,000 attendees at a computer graphics conference were asked to operate a computer flight simulator devised by Loren Carpenter. Each participant was connected into a network via a virtual joy stick. Each of the 5,000 copilots could move the plane’s up/down, left/right controls as they saw fit, but the equipment was rigged so that the jet responded to the average decisions of the swarm of 5,000 participants. The flight took place in a large auditorium, so there was lateral communication (shouting) among the 5,000 copilots as they attempted to steer the plane. Remarkably, 5,000 novices were able to land a jet with almost no direction or coordination from above. One came away, as I did, convinced of the remarkable power of distributed, decentralized, autonomous, dumb control.

About five years after the first show (this is the update), Carpenter returned to the same conference with an improved set of simulations, better audience input controls, and greater expectations. This time, instead of flying a jet, the challenge was to steer a submarine through a 3D under-sea world to capture some sea monster eggs. The same audience now had more choices, more dimensions, and more controls. The sub could go up/down, forward/back, open claws, close claws, and so on, with far more liberty than the jet had. When the audience first took command of the submarine, nothing happened. Audience members wiggled this control and that, shouted and counter-shouted instructions to one another, but nothing moved. Each person’s instructions were being canceled by another person’s orders. There was no cohesion. The sub didn’t budge.

Finally Loren Carpenter’s voice boomed from a loudspeaker in the back of the room. “Why don’t you guys go to the right?” he hollered. Click! Instantly the sub zipped of to the right. With emergent coordination the audience adjusted the details of sailing and smoothly set off in search of sea monster eggs.

Loren Carpenter’s voice was the voice of leadership. His short message carried only a few bits of information, but that tiniest speck of top-down control was enough to unleash the swarm below. He didn’t steer the sub. The audience of 5,000 novice cocaptains did that very complicated maneuvering, magically and mysteriously. All Loren did was unlock the swarm’s paralysis with a vision of where to aim. The swarm again figured out how to get there in the same marvelous way that they had figured out how to land the jet five years earlier.



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This is a blog version of a book of mine first published in 1998. I am re-issuing it (two posts per week) unaltered on its 10th anniversary. Comments welcomed. More details here.
-- KK