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Beautiful Trouble is a crash course in the emerging field of carnivalesque realpolitik, both elegant and incendiary.”

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo & The Shock Doctrine

Simple rules can have grand results

Contributed by

“Sept 17. Wall Street. Bring tent.”

In Sum

Movements, viral campaigns and large-scale actions can’t be scripted from the top down. An invitation to participate and the right set of simple rules are often all the starter-structure you need.

In 1986, computer scientists did an experiment on “emergence — where complex global behavior can arise” unplanned and unprogrammed “from the interaction of simple local rules.”[ref]Boids: Background and Update, Craig Reynolds, 1986 . http://www.red3d.com/cwr/boids/[/ref] They created virtual birds called “boids.” (The computer scientists must have been from Brooklyn.) They put these boids in a virtual environment and threw in a few virtual obstacles. They assigned every boid the same three simple rules: fly forwards, stay a certain distance from any other boids near you and don’t bang into obstacles. Then they threw the switch. The birds flocked together. As the flock approached a cloud, it would break up into smaller flocks to either side, and then reform — all without the idea of flocking ever being programmed into the system.

This experiment was a stripped-down demonstration of something we experience in nature and society all the time — and something activists can put to good use.

If you’re trying to organize a participatory art piece, a mass action or a viral campaign, you don’t need to script it all out — even if you could. All you need are a few simple rules that participants can sign on to. If you hit on the right rules, they can lead to a surprisingly robust, effective and beautiful happening.

Think of Critical Mass, the monthly mass bike rides that take place in cities across the world. The rules are simple: Gather after work on the last Friday of the month. Stick together. If you’re at the front, you decide where the mass goes next. If you’re at the back, help stragglers keep up. If you’re in the middle, just ride, or, if you want, protect other bikers from cross-traffic. No one and everyone is in charge. It’s an “organized coincidence.” And it works.

Flash mobs operate by the same logic. The call for a 2008 flash mob pillow fight on Wall Street consisted of two rules: Bring a pillow, and don’t hit anybody who doesn’t also have a pillow. Enough said!

These kind of efforts work well on the Internet as well. Think of the “we are the 99%” tumblr. The invitation was simple: take a picture of yourself holding a sign that describes your situation — for example, “I am a student with $25,000 in debt.” Below that, write “I am the 99 percent.” The resulting tapestry of voices became an eloquent statement of solidarity.

A carnival protest might succeed with an “anything goes” rule set, because, well, it’s a carnival. A more politically focused mass street action see CASE: Citizen’s Posse or viral campaign of distributed actions see CASE: Billionaires for Bush, however, often needs a stronger framework. The nature of your action, its complexity, and the degree of risk will determine the exact rules required.

HOW THE OPPOSITE IS EQUALLY TRUE: Simple rules, no matter how well chosen, won’t magically do all the work on their own. Often, conveners (folks who make the invitation and set the rules) have to stage manage all along the way to keep the seemingly organic process going. The right set of simple rules can get you most of the way there, though, and the “there” might be somewhere you never could have planned or imagined.

A long-time veteran of creative campaigns for social change, Andrew led the decade-long satirical media campaign “Billionaires for Bush” and co-founded the Other 98%. He's the author of a couple books: Daily Afflictions, Life’s Little Deconstruction Book, and the forthcoming I Want a Better Catastrophe: Hope, Hopelessness and Climate Reality. Unable to come up with with his own lifelong ambition, he’s been cribbing from Milan Kundera: “to unite the utmost seriousness of question with the utmost lightness of form.” You can find him at andrewboyd.com.

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