March of the metronomes


Synchronization vs Independence

Watch this experiment. Thirty-two small metronomes on a suspended surface are started at different times. Each little machine is set to the same rate, yet they attain synchronicity on their own. It didn’t take long. At 2:40 the last holdout, the little pink metronome on the far right, second row, finally obeys the rhythm of its clicking comrades. All clatter is gone: only a single, monotonous ‘TICK” remains. Arrhythmic becomes consistent.

What we see here is the phenomenon known as positive feedback resonance. The motion of many individuals causes the flexible floor to sway. Individuals add to the sway and reinforce it when they adapt to the motion from the floor. It can have serious consequences with high-volume traffic in buildings and bridges.

Is positive feedback resonance just physics? We see this in social movements, too. Audiences have the ability to adjust to a single clap. Fashion is a “me, too” phenomenon. And so with politics, religion and government. It’s a conscious-unconscious thing. Individuals sense the pressure to conform; unconsciously, they start to march in step.

Fortunately, humans, although highly social, are intelligent individuals. And unlike the controlled metronome experiment, we are subject to unpredictable stimuli that upset orderly things. We right ourselves and march to our own beat. For a while, at least.

The little machines march on, like a  formation of soldiers with bayonets. That is, unless the giant hands descend again.




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