68 - Flocking

When modelling the flocking of birds, such as in Logo, there are three functions to be aware of: alignment, separation and cohesion. Alignment makes a bird copy the turning of adjacent birds, separation moves it away from birds that are too close and cohesion moves it towards other birds, unless another bird is too close. When birds are too close, the separation rules overrules the others until sufficient space is achieved. Google both Flocking and Boids.

Chinese people, when out in public, behave according to some similar rules. To compare like with like we should be thinking of groups of people generally going in the same direction and at similar speeds. However, it seems to be assumed that flocking occurs in rejection of individual behaviour. The flocking models do show that the lone bird will join a flock; there may be some sort of cancellation command that releases a bird from flocking – some more urgent need takes over. Flocks do sometimes combine.

Proximity among people walking on wide pavements in China is far higher than in so-called ‘western’ societies: the separation value in the east is close to zero and the cohesion in the west is close to zero. The test for these two assertions is, obviously, to look at the point where two people will move closer together or further apart. Where foot traffic is low and the general direction common, spacing will be regular in the west, down to the family unit, which flocks under different rules. In the east, both the general and family cases can be the same, but for a small increase in traffic levels, the Chinese behave more individually. That is, the family unit is ignored in preference to the compulsion to flock as if an individual. Thus, this small increase in street population density makes for a clumping together where Europeans will be still striving for separation. Also, in the west, there is a greater likelihood of people travelling at different speeds, i.e. refusing to flock and acting more as if different species. In saturated traffic, such as pavement rush-hour in London or in match crowds, there is still a measure of contrary movement and in the west the apparent alignment is only a reflection of a common goal (the exit, the subway entrance, the stadium gateway). In the east, even where people have disparate goals, the alignment factor is significantly higher than in the west and in my opinion reflects a preparedness to go see what others have found interesting. A crowd draws a crowd, here.

I have only seen this happen in Britain where there is a stall-holder demonstrating some super-cheap deal at exhibitions. Generally my observation is that a crowd in the west will strive to break up and to spread out – the separation rule over-rules. Indeed, observation of western behaviour says that the desired separation is whatever is avail-able, that is, equally spaced from all other pedestrians until the satisfactory separation value is achieved. In the wide open spaces, such as in the hills, my observation is that cohesion is still infinitely small outside any group walking together  - acting as lone birds and leaving the spaces within a group quite alarmingly large, not acting as a group at all.

So my observation could be expressed as saying that the Chinese do flocking but the westerners generally don’t. That is not intended to be a comment on the population density but it may be so. Generally my experience of China has been in an urban office environment, which does operate at higher densities than the west does. Out on the streets I have been in cities larger than everywhere in Britain except London and frequently the everyday (I prefer quotidian) walking population would match the most crowded that Britain experiences.

Therefore, let us look at Chinese as examples of human behaviour and ignore comparison for a while. Proximity is at all times high; where two or three are gathered together there will rapidly be six, ten, etc., so if you are being served at a counter there will (all too easily) be someone standing in contact with your elbow taking an interest in what is happening. In the west that is offensive; here, it is normal. I have been on crowded London tubes – they really do not compare with crowded buses in Nanjing, and any footage you may have seen showing people (in Tokyo) being pushed into the crowd on the metro is completely believable. When I’ve seen crowds like that here I’m helping people to see that they might prefer to find an alternative solution – that appeals to the psyche, but where no problem is perceived, the typical Chinese is quite happy just to charge on in, not unlike a scrimmaging player in rugby.

I base my comment on observations on the street in central Nanjing and Xi’an (cities well over 5M and sometimes listed as eight million), Shanghai and HongKong, all visited frequently in the last three years.

The structure above has wandered and lost itself. I shall publish in the hope of some reaction and return to the writing later in the year. It might be better to make this a facet of “What is good for China”. But while that was the original heading when I began writing this, it seems unconnected now.

DJS   20110105
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, Life in ZQ


© David Scoins 2017