Shakes on a Plane: Can you Harlem shake yourself to death?

Dancing like a tit at 30,000 feet.

Harlem shaking. Everyone's doing it, it's terrible, and sometimes you wish they would die. Lately, it seems like they might. Passengers on one plane nearly sparked an aviation emergency after harlem shaking en masse without thinking about the physics of such concerted action:

Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the problem is that a plane is, y'know, a floating tube hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour. Everyone in that floating tube violently throwing their weight around runs quite a high chance of upsetting the delicate balance that keeps the tube floating in the air.

As a result, the FAA is looking into whether the stunt, which was carried out by students from the Colarado College in the US, was safe. The *Catalyst*, the college's newspaper, reports:

The students, who were traveling from Colorado Springs to San Diego on the way to an ultimate frisbee tournament, filmed a version of the “Harlem Shake,” a YouTube meme that has gone viral in the past few months. While no charges or sanctions have been filed against the airline or the students, the FAA is continuing their investigation into the flight and working to uncover if any regulations were violated.

“They are still looking into it, it’s still open,” Tony Molinero, a spokesman for the FAA said this week. “…I don’t know where the [investigators] were told about it, but when they saw the video they just decided to look into it because it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Back-of-the-envelope maths shows that the shakers would have to try quite hard to kill themselves. Take a Boeing 727-100, roughly the same type of plane the shakers will have been on. That plane has a maximum takeoff weight of 77 tonnes, and an empty weight of just under 37 tonnes. That means that, assuming the airline is halfway competent, the total weight of everybody on board can't be more than 40 tonnes. As it’s is, of course, they are likely to be nowhere near that. For one thing, much of that weight will actually be luggage and other essentials; for another, the plane holds a max of 150 passengers, and even assuming some bulky American football players, they don't weigh an average of 375kg.

So assume, at a stretch, a passenger weight of around 20 tonnes — maybe there are some really fat people just off frame. And assume that, at some point in the shake, they all threw their weight in the same direction at the same time. That would also be unlikely, given the whole point of the Harlem shake is everyone shaking crazily, not moving in lockstep as though they were inmates at that Thai prison where everyone is forced to dance to Michael Jackson.

A professional long-jumper hits 10m/s at the end of their run, so again, being generous, lets assume that's the speed our airborne meme-generators throw themselves to the side. If they make up roughly a quarter of the weight of the plane, that means the jet as a whole will lurch 2.5 m/s to the side.

That's about the magnitude of a particularly nasty stretch of turbulence. The far more dangerous aspect would be the fact that if you have 150 people in a confined space throwing themselves against the wall, the resulting crush would leave several of them gasping for breath.

And in the real world, the Harlem shake doesn't involve everyone throwing themselves in one direction in an effort to take down a plane. Instead, it just involves someone dancing like a tit for fifteen seconds, before everyone else dances like a tit for a further fifteen seconds. In those circumstances, they'll likely land safe and sound. Though frankly, they don't deserve to.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.


This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times