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The Tic Tock of Social Change

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How do social problems that may have exist for generations suddenly become urgent public issues and the subject of broad public debate (child labor ? How is it that a public consensus can suddenly coalesce around an issue that has been clouded by uncertainty and discordant opinions for years (gay marriage comes to mind as a recent example, or the drum beat of war leading up to the invasion of Iraq).

Everyone should watch this video and see it as a possible model to explain how public consensus or spontaneous collective perception is achieved in human society. It solves, at least in an abstract way, the mystery of the 99 monkeys, otherwise known as the 100th monkey effect.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundredth_monkey_effect

Of course the 100 monkey effect has not been empirically confirmed in the primate world, however it still serves as a parable that highlights a real phenomenon involving our collective cognition. Before I go on, please see the amazing video below.
Watch 32 discordant metronomes achieve synchrony in a matter of minutes

If you place 32 metronomes on a static object and set them rocking out of phase with one another, they will remain that way indefinitely. Place them on a moveable surface, however, and something very interesting (and very mesmerizing) happens.

The metronomes in this video fall into the latter camp. Energy from the motion of one ticking metronome can affect the motion of every metronome around it, while the motion of every other metronome affects the motion of our original metronome right back. All this inter-metranome “communication” is facilitated by the board, which serves as an energetic intermediary between all the metronomes that rest upon its surface. The metronomes in this video (which are really just pendulums, or, if you want to get really technical, oscillators) are said to be “coupled.”

The math and physics surrounding coupled oscillators are actually relevant to a variety of scientific phenomena, including the transfer of sound and thermal conductivity. For a much more detailed explanation of how this works, and how to try it for yourself, check out this excellent video by condensed matter physicist Adam Milcovich.



While the math and physics of coupled oscillators may be relevant to other aspects of physics, is it possible that it is relevant to some social phenomenon as well? 

To help us see what’s going on, imagine the metronomes are sitting on a pool of water. With each tic the device sends a small wave traveling in the opposit direction. In the beginning, the water’s surface would appear chaotic as the metronomes are all out of sync. Over time some waves will start to cancel out others while some waves will reinforce others. The reinforced waves impart subtle resistance forces on the out-of-sync metronomes gradually stretching the swing in one direction and shortening it in the other until all the pendlums are in sync with the ever strengthening wave patterns beneth them. It is this interaction of forces between the metronomes and the movable surface on which they sit that is referred to above as “inter-metronome communication.”

I suggest that all human communications and actions are similarly played out on a movable social fabric capable of transmitting social forces that resist or reinforce an individuals cognitive perceptions. We are all influence by the strength and direction of these pre-cognitive social forces.

To illustrate, there is an old joke about a British mother watching a large military parade and upon seeing her son marching declared, “Look at that? Everyone is out of step but my Aire!” 

Now imagine that Aire is highly regarded among his peers, so much so that they feel badly for him. Some of his friends might decide to provide cover for Aire by adopting his step. Other colleagues near by might see this a funny and join in while still others might become confused, thinking they are out of step. At some point Aire’s stride and the impact on those around him could become self-reinforcing, particularly in his units formation. Soon others begin falling into step adjusting their stride thus strengthening the pattern until a “tipping point” is reach and the rest of  the marchers fall in step with Aire. Suddenly that British mother is proven correct! 

This is only an analogy, but it is worth considering. I suspect that the physics behind coupled oscillators may point the way to actual solutions to certain unexplained social phenomenon that has perplexed social researchers for years.



  1. TamrahJo says:

    I learned of the “100th monkey” story years ago and it has long fascinated me. This is equally intriguing. If you have not already read it, you may find David R. Hawkins, “Power vs. Force” an interesting read as well.

    I believe each of these to be a beacon, trying to light the way to that which we live in and affect and yet do not understand fully.

  2. dalo2013 says:

    Very cool video and post. For the metronomes, I assume that it is the very subtle centrifugal force created by the movement of the base that does the trick… Very much like the subtle movements of society embracing one thing or ideology, which through similar forces will sway a population. Intriguing.

    • DataHeart says:

      I think you are basically correct. I actually just read your post after having added my own explanation of the processes at work on the metronomes. The tick tock of the pendulums impart equal and opposite forces at the base which imparts seismic energy waves through the surface on which they rest. It is easier to imagine what is happening if you picture them resting the the surface of a body of water. As you may know some waves cancel out other waves when they are out of sync while some waves amplify other waves. Eventually these amplified waves predominate. They can then act upon the metronomes to bring their swinging motion into line with the others.

  3. dalo2013 says:

    Beautiful. I really enjoyed this post…and an accurate description of society of yesterday and today. You summarize it well with your quote: “we are all influence by the strength and direction of these pre-cognitive social forces.”

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