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Crowd Control
April 11, 2009 - 1:09am

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Even after years of observing the phenomenon, I have no explanation. Obviously, one might think that on a rainy Monday morning, in the slump after midterms, fewer people would be walking on campus because fewer might be expected to go to classes. Or that on fine spring afternoons many would be out and about, even if they were walking past their classrooms, bound for trysts and other assignations. Actually, there’s no way to predict.

All I know is that sometimes I arrive on the edge of the main Quad and find thousands of people streaming between buildings, elbow-to-elbow, jostling, passing, and dodging bicycles, and sometimes—for no reason having to do with weather or time of the semester, week, or day—it’s only me and a plump suburban girl in mukluks. More mysterious still, classrooms can be full or depleted in either case.

Psychologists and sociologists have long tried to unlock the behavior of crowds, and they’re developing new and better tools to do so all the time, like this computer model, built on the behavior of “warmongering orcs” in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, described in a recent issue of The Economist. An engineer and former firefighter says in the article that most software trying to predict how people will act in a burning building

“…assumes people behave like water flowing through a pipe…. They move at constant flow rates, heading for the nearest exits. But that’s not realistic.” Human behaviour is in fact far more complex and often quite irrational. When fleeing a fire people will often try to retrace their steps and leave the building by the way they came in, rather than heading for the nearest exit—even if it is much closer.

It occurs to me that the improved model, if it works, might also help landscape architects reduce congestion on college campuses, or at least eliminate muddy footpaths that develop in defiance of paved sidewalks.

A classroom is a crowd, its students trained to behave like particles in a pedagogical fluid flowing through the pipe toward graduation. There is a group effect at work, or should be; the classroom is not just a place to fill individuals with information more efficiently. But what if the group refuses to act as a group? What if everybody runs for the wrong exits?

One of my classes has become chaotic this semester. I don’t mean it’s unruly. I mean that of the original 15 students, four dropped immediately from this hard-to-get class; one brilliant young writer can’t make his way there; one good writer claims to have crushing family problems; other students have sports commitments, broken feet, job interviews, and terminal shyness. On a given day in this section, I face only six or seven students, two of whom will have been tardy, half won’t have read the material, and one who believes the word “bee-atch,” repeated often, makes for literary hilarity.

The world is in a bad way, and students are tired. Me too. I’m dried-up, a husk; I rattle in the wind. Funny enough, fatigue doesn’t sweep us through the pipe; it causes friction, resistance. Personally, I feel like running off to Hamburg with me mates and playing rock and roll for eight hours at a time in the Reeperbahn, high on German lager and amphetamines. (Sorry, I’ve been reading Philip Norman’s new biography of John Lennon.)

When I admitted to students last week that I had no juice, they were consoled, amused, and became so animated they finally began to work together—doing at first that thing we all did to the seventh-grade substitute teacher, getting him to talk about himself—so we became for a while more than the sum of our disparate parts.

No doubt our sociologist friends, in alliance with chaos theorists and computer engineers, and working in conjunction with the Reverse Vampires, will use crowd-behavior models to do more than predict physical movement. I’m sure somebody is trying to figure out how to use one to manipulate “buzz” on commercial products such as movies or diet cola. I’d like to use one to figure out the dynamics of my classes and get everyone working well every time. I’d be bigger than Elvis.

 

 

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