Better to be like birds than brainwashed zombies
We glorify individual uniqueness, but it is comforting to think that an ancient hand is guiding us as we stumble into a baffling future
A flock of starlings, swirling towards its roost. From a distance it seems to move like smoke, thick billows of clouds suddenly thinning, sparse groups seething together to black out the sky; tendrils snaking off the bottom to re-join the mass.
Hamlet told us that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but what about the swoop of a thousand sparrows? And what does this have to do with us, in this moment in SA?
To watch a great flock of birds getting ready to settle down for the night is to be convinced that it is choreographed by some collective consciousness. It seems too synchronised to be the result of individual decisions. And yet it is.
According to a recent study, reported on by the Smithsonian, “researchers found that a few birds clump closely together, and they are the ones that call the shots when it comes to turning”. Once those leaders change course, the birds behind them follow them, and are in turn followed by others. The flock’s new direction is transmitted fantastically quickly – it gets passed back through the crowd at up to 40 metres per second – giving the overall impression that the entire group is controlled by a single impulse.
We are, of course, more sophisticated than birds. We might have a tendency to get in line behind the extra-glossy sparrows up near the front of the flock, and yes, we might spend an awful lot of time tweeting at each other; but we have self-awareness, which means that we have the capacity to feel anxious and conflicted about the whole thing, which makes us way better than birds.
Still, there seems to be some overlap between them and us.
I don’t want to endorse the view of the misanthropes and pessimists who claim that we have all become brainwashed zombies shuffling through malls and groaning: “Braaaands!” I believe that we are as inventive as we are dull; as creatively discontented as we are complacent; as secretly eccentric as we are publicly conformist.
Our reasons for following who we follow, for voting how we vote and for buying what we buy, can be as complex as humanity itself; a spider’s web of influences ranging from geopolitics and macro-economics right down to the bacteria in our back yard.
Looking at those birds, however, one has to wonder if sometimes we don’t simply twitch left or right, up or down, because the sparrow in front of us has just twitched that way.
Despite our age’s glorification of individual uniqueness, we remain social animals, the inheritors of millions of years of living in a stinky, sweaty, bum-sniffing, armpit-foraging heap. The heap taught us many things – how to love, how to fight, how to invent, how to speak – but perhaps most importantly for a gregarious simian, it taught us how to read a room.
Over hundreds of millennia we have developed an astonishing capacity to sense and interpret group dynamics. Spoken language was still a million years in the future when our ancestors were precisely weighing up the mood of a group, its social and political hierarchy, its strengths and weaknesses, and its immediate intentions. We are endlessly told how alienated we all feel in the modern, urban world, but we still have that ancient, fantastically sensitive instrument inside us that can pick up the smallest tremor in the social fabric the way a seismograph can feel a soft rumble half a world away.
Would it be so surprising, then, to discover that we are more like a flock of birds than we imagine? Is it possible that our politics and society are moved by the shocks and breakthroughs that we read about in the media, but also by almost intangible, fractional shifts, with tiny course corrections flickering through us faster than thought?
I like this idea because, for all its connotations of unthinking, animal reaction, it would mean that there are sophisticated messages rushing between all of us all the time; that we are still communicating.
It would reassure me that, even as we stumble into a baffling future, our ancient ancestors are offering help from the middle of the stinky heap; warning us not to stray too far; urging us to follow the devil we know.
And, in a fractured, impatient country, in which aggressive polarisation is being sold as ideological virtue, it offers me the hope that all this swirling and swooping and coming and going might be nothing more dramatic than the manoeuvring of a mighty flight of birds trying to find a roost where it can wait for tomorrow’s sunrise.