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Rutger van Santen, Djan Khoe, and Bram Vermeer

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195377170

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195377170.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 23 June 2021

Engineering Society

Engineering Society

5.0 (p.203) Engineering Society

Rutger van Santen

Djan Khoe

Bram Vermeer

Oxford University Press

A storm blew up in Berlin in 1989 not far from the spot where much of this book was written. It all began in a small way with people attending weekly services at the local church to pray for peace. When the communist East German regime used violence to break up a demonstration, the church became a refuge for hundreds, and later thousands, of people. The society in question had grown rigid. To express it in the language of complexity, the social network became so tautly stretched that any shock was readily propagated throughout the system. The police repeatedly beat up the churchgoers, but the multitude failed to respond in the expected way. Instead of kicking and punching, they prayed and sang. They didn’t display the anticipated logic of action and reaction, eventually causing the police to withdraw in confusion. The demonstrators created positive feedback, and as a result, the mass of people grew even bigger. “We were prepared for everything but not for candles,” a police commander later commented. The protests also confused the GDR’s inflexible leaders. At the peak of the protests, an East German minister declared that citizens would be permitted to travel to the West. The chaos that ensued was so great that historians are still trying to unravel the precise sequence of events. On the brink of a critical transition, old forces dissipate and unpredictable movements can occur. This is a typical example of a small movement that can lead to much greater things, as we have also seen in other complex systems. Tens of thousands of people laid siege to the Wall. Exactly who eventually decided to raise the barriers has been lost in the fog of history. It was most likely a low-ranking officer at a border crossing who was no longer able to cope with the mass of people. To ease the pressure, he allowed a few citizens through the barrier. The effect was to throw gasoline onto the fire or, to put it another way, to create positive feedback that tipped the situation into transition. Within minutes, the crowd could no longer be restrained.

Keywords:   behavior, human, collective phenomena, complex dynamical systems, computer games, feedback mechanisms, irrationality, models, social dynamics, social engineering, transitions

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