Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Golden Shower of Pits

When I see large numbers of people at events I often-times wonder about the internal control-elements of the crowd. This July I took myself and a friend to see Interpol at DC’s 9:30 club for my birthday. The audience was strangely lit by the glow from a thousand smart phones. Every screen I was able to make out was tuned into the internet-based social network called facebook. Perhaps one could write a facebook app to synchronize the interaction of people in crowds?

Humans are often called “social” animals, but they are not eusocial (“true social”) animals. Two species of eusocial mammals have been identified: Fukomys damarensis and Heterocephalus glaber. These rodents live in large colonies that resemble a pit full of rats. Within these colonies the division of effort is accompanied by a diversity of physiological forms reminiscent of hive insects. Lording over the colony is a queen that can be more than twice the size of her non-fertile offspring. The queen induces the physiological polymorphism by peeing hormone –laden urine on her children, and then aggressively threatening them.

There are reports of humans using chemical signals to create socially synchronized structures. The McClintock effect involves the synchronization of menstrual-cycles around that of a dominant menstrual pacesetter. Researchers swabbed the armpits of pacesetter women and then rubbed those swabs on the upper lip under the nose of the test subjects. The periodicity of the test subjects' menstrual cycles became like that of the menstrual pacesetter.

H. glaber is the cooler of the two eusocial mammals. The common name for H. glaber is “Naked Mole rat” or “Saber-toothed sausage”.


One invasive way to synchronize a crowd would be to implant glowing electrode-tentacled robotic squids into the brains of those to be synchronized.

Music has a calmative effect on most mammals. Rumor has it that H. glaber is most responsive to techno and Jimi Hendrix.

A very non-invasive way to induce group synchronization would be to mechanize the function that was to be synchronized, and thereby bypass the fickle control-processes of the human brain. One Japanese-English artist called Sputniko designed a robotic menstrual cycle stimulator. It induces cramping via an electric current and then sends a dribble of blood down the inside of the thigh. The possible genesis of a cyber-McClintock effect was probably not the singularity that Vernor Vinge envisioned.

Males may also be able to affect the menstrual synchronicity of women’s menstrual cycling. In mice males can adjust the menstruation periods of nearby female mice by peeing on them. This is called the Whitten effect. It seems like –when it comes to sex and society- rodents pee on each other an awful lot. There are humans who pee on each other, and for many of them this also has something to do with sex.

I can’t help but imagine the intricate machinations of biochemical signal and countersignal confused into the madness of crowds. Each beating heart pounds out a message of throbbing humanity that builds into the day’s gamelan of culture. I can’t help but see some crowds and know that something is going to happen; something interesting that draws me in.



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