Two brothers fight while ants twitter hope


Egypt is relatively quiet today; the army has disbanded the parliament and suspended the constitution and there seems to be a state of calm – reports of demonstrators who refuse to go home vary, but the crowd does not seem to be as large or vocal as it was.  There was one interesting demonstration – the police demonstrated demanding higher wages and more respect.

My favorite American news source, NPR as reached a plateau as have most western media outlets.  For 18 days, the news was dynamic; taking pictures of the crowds and interviewing a wide variety of people to gain a more comprehensive picture of events was enough, it was news, it was happening before our eyes.  But in truth, for all of those days the media was all doing the same thing, repeating a few basic story lines – the background and root causes, the desires of demonstrators and the possible outcomes and the government’s reactions and statements.  That is all stale now and certainly not news, but NPR and the others have not figured out what to do next – my guess is most will pack up and go in search of something new.

However, Al-Arabyia is introducing some new story lines; first it appears that Mubarak had recorded to two speeches, a prerecorded resignation and the speech we heard, his refusal to resign.  Each speech had its backers among his ministers and close advisers. His sons took opposite sides, Gamal wanted his father to stand fast, while Alaa wanted his father to resign.  How do we know that?  It seems the two had a very public argument while Mubarak was making his speech.  The argument was public enough that journalists overheard it.  In a very telling exchange, Alaa accused his brother of feathering his own nest at the expense of their father and his reputation; according to Alaa, Gamal was busy handing out favors and collecting rewards., he did not want to lose his influence or the revenue stream as he would if his father resigned and then of course until this happened Gamal had been the heir apparent.  Al-Arabyia reported that Gamal convinced his father not to resign, to ignore the previously recorded speech and to say what Mubarak eventually did say.  Again, according to Al-Arabyia the two brothers had to be separated before they came to blows, and quieted down before someone overheard.  They waited a little to late for the second part as inquiring minds had already been listening and taking notes.  I think Hosni Mubarak and Stanley Ho do have a lot in common – two old men being manipulated by their children and others for personal gain.

Last night I went in search of some ideas that might help me understand these events at a lower level, a more mechanical or biological level.  I paraphrased Rita yesterday in my comments on social media and its role – she wrote a comment that further articulates her thinking on the subject.  But I wanted something deeper – twitter does connect people, but why would one person respond and go into the square just because another person (or some number of other persons) sent a tweet suggesting it?  I found two interesting perspectives from very different disciplines, eras and political bias.  The first one was Eric Hoffer, writing in “The True Believer” in 1951.  Hoffer was trying to understand mass political or religious movements; he was a left wing dock working political philosopher; the second was a description of self-organizing ant colonies by two biologists, Greene and Gordon.

Hoffer’s ideas hits at a level that makes sense to me; he says that mass movements are built on hope – extreme hope. He says people with no hope, no vision of future and a miserable existence have very low self-esteem and confidence.  They cannot be moved by promises of more bread or a better job this week or next – but they can be moved to the point of being willing to die for a cause that offers them a vision of hope for the future and membership in a group of like believers; at that point they are not being selfish or self-centered but are working for a purpose greater than themselves – a true cause.  That gives them pride, self-confidence and a sense of purpose – all things that they previously lacked. Hoffer says that unemployment is a fundamental condition for building mass movements.  He further says that if you want to build a mass movement preach hope, don’t waste time on articulating the problems (the target audience knows them very well) or on specific political solutions – just give them a vision and hope.

The second perspective from the ants provides some possible mechanisms for explaining the results of the tweeting – mass gatherings.  It seems that the ant colonies in the studies act as colonies, not as individuals.  Individual ants do things and leave a trail of sent that other ants follow.  It is simply a matter of mathematics.  A thousand ants go out looking for food, they return when they have found it.  The ants waiting follow the trail of the returning ants.  Over time the source with largest amount of food and closest to the nest will have the heaviest layers of “ant smell” and therefore will increasing attract more ants to follow that trail.  In that way the ant colony finds the fastest routes, the best food supplies and other solutions to colony problems.  Ant computer modeling has been used to solve a wide variety of business problems.  So there is one piece, more and more people sending a tweet generates more people sending one and each generate more people in the square.  There is one other way that mass in Egypt could have generated more mass – visual images; moment by moment coverage showed the size of the crowds, the sounds and the emotions of the crowds; those images could have come from television, but also from cell phones up loading them onto other social media applications.  Those images too would inspire more people to join.

It is of course superficial to use these simplistic explanations for something as complicated as the events in Egypt.  (and I might add for me to do so with only a causal familiarity with the writings of Hoffer or the work of Greene and Gordon) Still it is intriguing isn’t it?  While we may not respond to the smell of another person quite like an ant, we do respond the emotions of others, we do respond to the actions of other – how else to explain professional sports, love, comedy or many other forms of shared emotion?  And we certainly do respond to all of those things more when more people have responded. It is a fundamental part of the development of any trend or fashion.  Second, if there was one word that we heard more than any other from Tahrir Square it was hope.  And there you have it, old fashion philosophy and a bunch of ants tweeting each other meet in Egypt and presto they bring down the government.


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