We live in an attention eco-system

If you happen to travel in one of the suburban trains leading north of Melbourne’s CBD, chances are that a huge advert hoarding erected at one of the busy railway stations en-route will catch your attention. It is something you cannot miss as you sit inside the train staring far into the vicinity.

The hoarding painted in attractive colours with “Find your true north- by Jeep compass” boldly written stands proudly in public display. Incidentally, Compass is one of the car models from Jeep’s stable. Advertising companies have their way and the slogans and advert lines are very creative with messages transcending cultural norms and captivating the masses who read it in myriad different ways. So much so, that it has captivated me and has set a trail of thoughts to write this small piece.

Whether they are communicating their brand story or not but it does create sentient thought patterns for many of the onlookers who happen to look at it at the same moment.

I think that is brilliant.

Purely as a metaphor, to find your true north is all about finding your own right path. To that extent, personally, I think most part of our lives we are uncertain as to the future direction that we need to take. Knowing our true north would enable us to tread on the right path. Being in that state of uncertainty is key and essential. By truly acknowledging and knowing the uncertainty, new paths or directions seem to open.

Moreover, this is exactly what a swarm of Golden shiners seem to exhibit and behave so that ‘new paths’ or rather the right path opens for them as a whole.

Golden Shiners are a small fish native the shores of North America. They are best studied for their swarm behaviour by the evolutionary biologist Dr. Iain Couzin from Princeton University. Brilliant as they are, the fish exhibit remarkable intelligence as a shoal. From a fish sense, so to speak, the individual fish are one-dimensional i.e. they can only see lighter or the darker areas of the ocean. However, as a swarm they are able to gauge other dimensions and swim en-masse quickly to safety. There is no computation involved at all. They simply trust their neighbour fish and stick to their instinct. They swim in tandem and do not collide with each other. Together as a swarm, they are able to assess the other dimensions of speed, direction, distance and effort required to swim to darker areas to avoid other predatory fish. Almost all social animals- flocking birds, bees, ants, elephants, humans watching a single event at random at any given moment in time and even rule-based robot swarms exhibit and conform to the patterns of swarm behaviour.

Talking about humans, the idea of a group mind is fascinating. Gustave le bon, the French polymath who is best known for his work “The crowd, a study of the popular mind” in 1895 must be one happy man in his grave. Much of his humanistic view on crowds have seen a rapid resurgence in the past 10 years with the advent of social media. He talks about the hypnotized individual falling into the hands of the hypnotizer and thereby creating a ‘crowd effect’. The hypnotizers are none other the members of the crowd.

There have been opposing views in the media in recent times on losing our unique individuality and the crowd is swaying us. I think it is important to be a human being first, be self-aware to immerse yourself to find your own unique voice. Your thoughts, intentions and voicing your opinion is important. Individual thoughts and feelings are stimulated by each other’s thoughts and feelings. Most often, there is usually a common cause in the group and your unique thoughts and feelings contribute to that group cause.

Perhaps this is most aptly seen in the use of social media where countless members of the public tweet at the same moment through hearsay creating a flash mob kind of an event. Such groups have minds of their own, which is quite distinct from the individual minds who tweet. Incidentally, the dramatic rise and popularity of Twitter came about when the founders introduced and advertised their new network at an American Super-bowl event and almost everyone in the stadium tweeted to their friends outside at the same moment.

This leads us to managing the enormous context data that Social media channels generate at any moment. Google processes about 24 petabytes of data at any given day. This data is not arranged in rows and columns and is largely unstructured. We call it the ‘Big data’. Big data can come in all forms ranging from social media likes, tweets, posts and comments. Analyzing such enormous data is no easy task. Gleaning information and searching for meaning in that data is a key differentiator factor for competition says Mckinsey, who published a report “Big data – The next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity” some time back.

The question is “how to make better use of this data?” and “what are the challenges in analyzing it?” Answers to such questions look bleak even after 5 years since the term “Big data” was first coined. Mining such huge data requires data mining technologies – data mining grid and map-reduce infrastructure such as Hadoop. Leave alone the steep learning curve it demands, it is not cost effective either.

As the events are dynamic in a social network, predicting where a social conversation will lead to and identifying trend patterns becomes difficult. There is undeniably elements of uncertainty, which need to be factored in when asking the right question and knowing when to ask it at the start of the day.

“The world is built on unbound data. Think of ourselves as machines and our brains as the processing engine” says Thomas Henson. Thomas is an author and podcaster at the Big data analytics community at Dell EMC. He is also an unstructured engineer and a Hadoop black belt. I happen to be part of the Dell EMC community as an external community member and had commented on Henson’s blog posts last year.

According to him all unstructured data is unbound data. He further narrates a sequence of events in a typical day of his life.

“Yesterday I was walking across a parking lot with my 5-year-old daughter. How much-unbound data that I process and analyze?

  1.  Watching for cars in the parking lot and calculating where and when to walk.
  2.  Ensuring I was holding my daughter’s hand and that she was still in step with me.
  3. Knowing the location of my car and path to get to the car.
  4. Puddles, pot holes, and pedestrians to navigate.

He surmises that all the information presented above is infinite and unpredictable and there could be others factors (weather etc.) that could be introduced.

Such unstructured data presents infinite possibilities and is not worth measuring unless there is a specific problem. It is in the “Knowing” what to measure, that it presents its challenge.

Interestingly, Louis Rosenberg, an American Inventor and Entrepreneur has shown that meaningful predictions can be made through small swarms. In 2014, Rosenberg founded the Unanimous AI network, which enables humans to enhance their collective intelligence modeled after swarms from the animal world.

By asking worldly questions to a small swarm of diverse unrelated respondents, he has shown that swarms in small numbers can have remarkable prediction capabilities than a huge crowd. The respondents answer with a simple yes or no at any given moment in time.

In one of his experiments for predicting the outcome of an English Football league match, despite being 16 times smaller, the swarm’s prediction was correct for 68% of the predictions, compared to 48% of the crowd. Such swarm intelligence is all about making use of intuition, knowledge and wisdom that is already present within the group.

In all of its successes, the caveat is that selfish interests of people in the group can act against the interest of the group and sway the decision-making.

Such caveat exists even in unpredictable crowd behaviour where history is replete with incidents of crowd unpredictability. The human crush that happened during the FA football cup in England in the year 1988 was disastrous. Football fans behaved in an erratic manner in the stadium, which resulted in a human crush. It was a bizarre incident and experts were clueless about what caused it.

Similarly, the stampede that occurred at Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 2015 during the annual Hajj where thousands died during that disastrous event. Experts were baffled and nobody knows what caused it.

Coming back to the Golden shiners, perhaps we can learn one or two from the no-brainers’ fish. The golden shiners are highly opinionated fish. Fish behaviour has caught the attention of the popular culture and researchers have started seeing parallels in societal behaviour and in the political system. There is talk about ‘fish democracy’ in recent times.

An interesting report was published in the science daily in 2011 which talks about how group consensus can be swayed for the good by the introduction of uninformed individuals thereby diluting the power of minority who would other tilt the balance unevenly. It is titled “Less knowledge, more power – Uninformed can be vital to democracy”. In a gist, it has always been that the entrenched minority with absolute resolve is capable of exerting the right influence to pull the crowd compared to the majority with less resolve.

Then the equations change when you throw a bunch of uninformed and unrelated individuals into the mix. Uninformed individuals – as in people with no prior knowledge or have strong feelings on the outcome always stick with and amplify the numerical majority. The minority, firm in their resolve and their course of direction locked, were lost.

When experimented on the Golden shiners, the results were dramatic and conclusive. There were two small groups of fish. One was the minority and the other was the majority with slightly higher member count. The minority was highly trained with a tight resolve to gravitate towards their natural tendency – a shade of colour, which they like. The majority group was trained to align their direction towards another colour shade, with less resolve.

When a new group of untrained fish was introduced, the fish gravitated towards the majority in the shoal who had less resolve and even though it was not their natural tendency.

The important findings were based on experiments on groups of fish, as well as mathematical models and computer simulations. Such experiments inform us that there is an evolutionary function for being uninformed which is as active and valuable as being informed and raises many other questions on what sways consensus and on the dynamics of group decision making.

Perhaps the newly introduced fish recognize and acknowledge that uncertainty by simply joining the majority. Even if there is no resolve, a simple trust in the power of many can shove them in the right direction in their quest to find their true north.


Ramkumar Yaragarla

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