What can 32 metronomes teach us about fashions and trends?

Learners on the University of Groningen’s course “Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World” have been learning about emergence. Watch the video below and prepare to be amazed.

The way in which these 32 out-of-sync metronomes gradually begin to tick in time illustrates two phenomena:

  • Emergence: defined as “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self organisation in complex systems.”
  • Downward causation: how group behaviour imposes a norm on individuals.

As learners on the course have pointed out, these phenomena can be used to explain all sorts of trends – from the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany, to the spread of hippy fashions into the mainstream in 1960s America.

Want to know more about this fascinating topic? “Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World” starts again on 19 January 2015 – join the course now.

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Comments (2)

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  • Bolly Queen

    A small point – the fact that the substrate is a ‘sprung’ platform means that the metronomes are, in effect, communicating their movements to one another via the interplay of pressure waves. Two questions arise, would this happen if they were placed on a more solid surface (I suspect that the more solid the surface the less the pressure waves can transmit and therefore the longer it would take for such synchronicity to occur) and does this lead us to the inference that unstable conditions lead to more homogeneous responses?

  • James Clay

    The reason that the metronomes sync is that surface that they are on is not fixed and begins to move slightly in time with the majority of the metronomes. This movement has a harmonising effect on the minority of the metronomes and gradually brings them into sync with the majority. If the experiment were to be carried out on a solid surface, or each metronome was on a separate solid surface they would not sync.
    Conclusion. The majority can only influence the minority when the majority are on a dodgy platform.