A murmuration of starlings

Catataxis means “more of the same is different”. Warhol’s silkscreen prints of 32 Campbell’s soup cans seems to say “more difference is the same”. In his wall of near identical soup cans, each is different “variety” but they are all essentially the same. In other words you may have ‘choice’ but no real variety.  Choosing one of them is no real choice at all. That static image, made in 1962, was a portentous warning of the future.  You probably feel it most today when you are surfing through the 999 channels on your satellite TV. You have far more ‘choice’ than twenty years ago but there is nothing you want to watch.

Warhol’s soup cans miss one  key feature: things are not static but dynamic. Computer generated imagery ( CGI) on those TV programs fills in the background crowds in a battle scene, or adds the herds of dinosaurs in a science documentary.  They can make realistic crowd behaviour by using a ‘flocking’ algorithm. This has three simple rules: go in the same direction as everyone else, try to be in the middle and don’t bump into other people. By instructing each computer generated agent in the crowd to follow those rules they create  realistic  flocking behaviour; the herd of dinosaurs looks real.

Those three rules of flocking behaviour are also the rules for the supermarket buyer or TV executive. We can take them one by one. First, you have to follow the current trend. You have to respond to what is popular or you will have no customers. Second, you have to be in the middle. Your job is to get as many customers as possible and, by definition, they are clustered around the middle. Third, don’t bump into other people. Your product needs to be slightly different or you will get sued for copyright infringement.

The reason why everything on TV looks a bit the same is that the people who commission the shows are  flocking. So a better metaphor for consumerism than Warhol’s soup cans is a flock of starlings on a winter evening. As the birds group together in the darkening sky, the patterns they make coalesce and fragment unexpectedly. Three simple rules make something complex and startlingly beautiful. It is jittery, unstable, individually free but bounded by the group and impossible to predict. It is a group effect , a catataxic effect. This is the modern consumer economy: an evening murmuration of the starlings

The instability comes from the balance of two opposing forces. There is the push of trying to be different and the pull of trying to belong. This is classic teenage angst. It’s no coincidence that advertising gurus peg the aspirational age at 17. This is the age that everyone in the modern consumer economy would like to be. It is the nexus of cool. Those younger than 17 want to be just like those older kids. They aspire to the maturity and freedom of a 17 year old. Those older look to recapture their youth. So if you pitch your product at 17 year olds you will hit a much broader market. That’s where trends are born. It’s the centre of gravity of the starling flock.

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