Crowd Control

If a crowd is heading one way down a street, what percentage of it needs to change direction before the whole crowd changes direction?

The answer is surprisingly precise: 6%. If 6% of people in a crowd change direction, the whole crowd changes direction.

And this is not just true of people. If 6% of a shoal of fish changes direction, so does the whole shoal; if 6% of a flock of starlings changes direction, so does the whole flock. And so on.

Crowd behaviour works to surprisingly simple rules. The quickfire evolutions of those starlings, in which they seem to change direction as though possessed of a single will, are governed by a very rudimentary algorithm, the inputs to which are merely the behaviour of the bird in front and each of the two birds to the side. No one starling is deciding anything, and no one starling is doing more than watching the starlings to the left, right, and in front of it.

I know how they feel. One of the great dangers of any group activity is group-think, and while this does not seriously affect a group of four, there is, inevitably, a move to consensus, particularly when groups are newly formed. In terms of total body-mass, 6% of a group of four is roughly two students’ brains. Enough to move the group in a given direction.

One of the hardest skills in any language, native or otherwise, is to say to a person you do not know very well, I do not understand, or I do not agree or quite simply I think you are wrong. We are social animals, and we tend to want to converge. But when a student does get the bit between his or her teeth, and stand up in defiance of the (almost always very genial) group opinion, then things get interesting.


Power Pointy

“Before there were presentations, there were conversations, which were a little like presentations but used fewer bullet points, and no one had to dim the lights.”

Ian Parker writing in The New Yorker (2001)

I am well-aware that I’m not the only declared enemy of PowerPoint™ and its progeny (I’m not a huge fan of the presentation, either, but we might save that for another post). I sometimes point my students towards a Guardian article pointing out the cognitive costs of the ubiquitous software, especially as used in academic contexts, and laying out (not in bullet points) how it has infected our thinking.

The PowerPoint presentation evolved as a tool for use within large corporations, as a way of making internal pitches. Departments inevitably compete for resources, and the silo-nature of very large entities dictated that any pitch should include a brief ‘presentation’ of key ideas and concepts, since no one department properly understood the work of any other. The presentation is therefore modelled on the advertising or sales pitch, and tries to highlight a few key flashpoints which might whet the appetite of a potential ‘customer’. It is a way of packaging and selling ideas.

Quite incapable, then, you would think, of handling the cognitive load of, say, a lecture in philosophy. Where once the key units of thought might have been the proposition and the paragraph, the key syntactic units of the PowerPoint presentation are the bullet-point list and the slide – the former a series of radically unconnected propositions the complexity of whose interconnections is implied, at best, and the latter an advertising hoarding rather than a parcel of thought.


Down with Bullet Points: Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law – Rembrandt

The article notes with guarded approval, however, Steve Jobs’ approach to the presentation. Jobs used only visuals – pictures, short videos – not words, in his keynotes. I am pleased to say that encourage my students to make similar use of visuals in their Thursday presentations. For different reasons, however: the temptation to read whatever it is you have put on the slide is overwhelming for a language student. Much better to generate or recall language from a simple visual prompt.

I suppose it is inevitable that new technologies will alter the way our minds work and handle information, over time. When print culture emerged in the sixteenth century there were fears that knowledge would be vulgarised, and indeed the emergence of widespread literacy was considered a danger to memory and hence to rhetoric and to thought itself in the classical world. It does not follow, however, that a new technology is beneficial and interesting, merely because other technologies at other times have been beneficial and interesting. In the words of Jeremy Corbyn (not a natural friend, I would think, of the PowerPoint presentation), there was nothing wrong with the Luddites.


I promised a post last week on the pleasures and benefits of incomprehension, which, my students will probably attest, is what I most like to teach. And in doing so, I stand upon firm pedagogical ground: even simplistic teaching methods (and mine is anything but) recognise the cognitive and psychological benefits of a little frustration. Moving from incomprehension to comprehension is, in a sense, the whole point of language-learning.

But some students, unaccountably, do not like it, which is strange when you consider that some of the most interesting areas of human endeavour – quantum physics, serial music, post-structuralist philosophy, the poetry of John Donne and the presidency of Donald Trump  – are fundamentally rooted in incomprehension. To get anywhere with them takes brain-work, and lots of it, and even then, in the words of one quantum physicist, you never really understand quantum mechanics (or serial music or post-structuralist philosophy etc. etc.) you just get used to it.

So it is with languages. A second or third language will always be full of blind spots. There is no such thing as ‘mastery’. Certain structures will persist in seeming illogical, alien, foreign. You never really profoundly understand them: you just memorise examples, get used to them, and finally learn when and how to deploy them. You might never fully comprehend inversion after negative adverbials, but you might, like a Turing machine, learn accurately, to use it, in a stimulus-response sort of fashion, like an automaton.

This, anyway, is what I like to tell my students. Do not fret over your incomprehension, but embrace it. Whichever scrap of language you truly do not understand, cannot comprehend, find elusive, find to lie forever beyond your grasp; that scrap is no longer mapped to your mother tongue, but is floating free, a vision of honest-to-god actual English you see before you. Congratulations.