Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday, 26 June 2020

The madding crowd

In the last couple of days, this quote has once again* sprung irresistibly to mind:
'Now that all the seals and their wives were on the land, you could hear their clamour miles out to sea above the loudest gales. At the lowest counting there were over a million seals on the beach – old seals, mother seals, tiny babies and holluschickie, fighting, scuffling, bleating, crawling, and playing together – going down to the sea and coming up from it in gangs and regiments, lying over every foot of ground as far as the eye could reach...'
Rudyard Kipling: 'The White Seal' from 'The Jungle Book' (if you thought it was all singing bears and dancing monkeys, do take a look!)
The media are, of course, doing their best to swell the numbers with a nifty bit of reverse psychology that seems to have stirred trippers from impossibly far afield (did that woman in Bournemouth really say she had come down from Macclesfield?) - 'if all those people are there, it must be worth the trip!'  (Since such reasoning tends to be the province of the least discerning citizens, it's small wonder that residents of seaside towns are despairing in the face of inconsiderate parking and used nappies (or worse) being dumped in their gardens.)

The more people on the beaches (and the larger the amount of residual litter), the greater the news value; what better incentive for a paper to pay cursory lip-service to the government warnings while publishing happy vox pops and abundant images showing hordes of jam-packed sunbathers stretching into the distance, families scoffing ice-cream or bikini-clad young women blithely frolicking in the waves? 'Wish you were here!'

It's one of the more worrying aspects of instant mass media - show the event and, within minutes, people are setting out to be part of it. To that we can now add social media - a whole new platform for attracting people to a gathering, whatever its purpose; the resident who described young men arriving in Brixton en masse in a series of taxis as the police came under pressure may have chronicled a phenomenon which will, in future, be all too familiar.

It's over ten years since I wrote this...
In 1973, Larry Niven's novella 'Flash Crowd' featured rioting and looting as the unforeseen consequence of mass teleportation; in the near future, we may see it happening as a direct result of 24 hour rolling news.
... and nine years since we saw it happen here, aided and abetted by Twitter and Blackberry messenger. In Niven's version - where, among other events, a crowd gathering on a Californian beach causes a 'major incident' - the authorities are finally advised to stop all travel into a 'flash crowd' area, which is probably not an option open to our thin blue line, even if their high-ups were prepared to give the order.

Since, according to the late, great Terry Pratchett,
“The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.” (Jingo)
and we can't put the social media genie back in the bottle (more's the pity!), I suspect we are likely to see a lot more of this kind of thing in the future.

*Originally used in this post


  1. "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers"
    George Carlin

    1. I rather think that should be carved above the doors of both Houses of Parliament as both a reminder and a warning.

  2. It's the same impulse that led to the panic buying - people just out for a normal shop see someone else with a trolley load of toilet rolls and think 'Better get in on this quick!'...

    1. ...and then other people see the scrums on the news and rush off to join in before it's all gone, much as they did with queues at petrol stations in 2012*.

      It's such an obvious cause-and-effect that I find it hard to see why so little attention was paid to Robert Peston's role in the banking crisis despite News 24 repeatedly showing his breathless coverage of the queues outside Northern Rock.

      *Which, with a pleasing symmetry, I compared to a spurious toilet roll crisis at the time: