I have been reading Elias Canetti's famous book on crowds lately. He was a well-connected, wealthy, and eccentric social theorist during the mid-20th century whose book on the life of crowds has become a definitive account of how crowds of people form and behave.
I thought of Cannetti when I was reading the local accounts of yesterday's stock market down-spike, where, for no apparent reason, stock prices plummetted a huge amount in about five minutes.
The Star Tribune was full of ashen-faced traders scratching their heads, and choice quotes like this:
No one was sure what happened, other than automated orders were activated by erroneous trades. One possibilility being investigated was that a trader accidentally placed an order to sell $16 billion, instead of $16 million, worth of futures, and that was enough to trigger sell orders across the market.
The truth is, nobody really knows why the stock market goes up or down. It behaves according to its own will, follows its own rules, and the people 'in charge' are just along for the ride. (That is, if there are even people making decisions any more. Now, most of the time, its automated computer programs that are buying and selling shares.)
The descriptions of spontaneous action reminded me of how Cannetti described crowds. Crowds are, he said,almost like magic.
The crowd, suddently there where there was nothing before, is a myterious and universal phenomenon. … suddenly everywhere is black with people... most of them do not know what has happened and, if questioned, have no answer.[Crowds and Power, p 16]
Crowds act without warning or reason. They are the opposite of the calculating, rational indivdual. They are the anti-homo economicus, creating chaso and disorder wherever they form.
In a way, the rise of urban planning in the 19th and 20th centuries is almost synonymous with attempts to control, catalyze, and break apart crowds. From Haussmann's famous boulevard-ing of Paris following the 1848 Revolution to 50s urban renewal projects to the 60s urban riots to the "free speech zones" during St Paul's RNC.
The crowd forms the basis for the fear of the city. And today, sitting in the midst of Minneapolis's terriblly misanthropic Gateway district, you can see how, despite their best efforts, modernism was unable to exorcise the crowd from its midst. It lives on in the "inexpliciable" "irrational" behavior of the market, in the mystery of the traffic jam, in whispers of the rumormill, and in the contasion of yawning.