Learn from the mob professor

It's been a fantastic three months for those of us gripped by the dynamics of crowds. First, we had student demonstrations here in Britain spiralling out of control; then, we saw Tunisians link arms to push out their corrupt regime; finally, millions took to the streets of Egyptian cities, pitting their sheer weight of numbers against the sclerotic - but still vicious - government of Hosni Mubarak.

Perhaps the most celebrated analyst of the crowd was the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, whose 1960 magnum opus, Crowds and Power, aimed to do for modern mass movements what Frazer's Golden Bough did for "primitive" ritual. To Canetti, both socialism and capitalism were political systems defined by "the modern frenzy of increase", in which production led to ever bigger crowds of goods and consumers.

This sense of industrialised society as a crowd, at root, directs Canetti to his definition of power as the coincidence of the desires of the ruler(s) and the ruled.

By this view, it's easy to understand the presence of crowds of people on the streets as symptomatic of a disjunction between the two: only when the crowd has been reabsorbed into the social fabric has synchronous equilibrium been achieved. In Canetti's jargon, the crowd in Tahrir Square was "stagnating", whereas the crowds of the quiescent Cairene unemployed before the revolt could be characterised as "rhythmic".

Dubstep revolutions

Canetti showed a nice understanding of how masses of people make their own political weather when he caustically observed that "fire unites a theatre more than a play can" - but his vision was underscored by the apocalyptic mood music of mutually assured destruction. "Rulers tremble today," he wrote, not "because they are rulers but as the equals of everyone else . . . Either everyone will survive or no one."

Fifty years on, and with examples of people power toppling regimes from Iran to Russia and Ukraine and - almost - back again, we've come to believe that there is an inherent "goodness" to the crowd. At least, this is what we believe in the west, where, apart from kettled teens jiggling to dubstep and lobbing firecrackers, the mob has become a purely recreational event. Our crowds hold up lighters and sway in stadiums; their mobs do away with tyrants, replacing rulers we were happy to do business with, one hopes, others we're even happier to do business with.

One man who experienced an epiphany while holding up a lighter at a stadium-rock gig was the inappropriately named Professor Keith Still. This mathematician was moved to invent the science - if it is one - of "crowd dynamics", a discipline he teaches at Bucks New University and on a course at the UK Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College.

A few weeks ago, I heard Still speaking on the radio about his work for the Saudi Arabian government, ensuring that the millions of pilgrims descending on Mecca for the Haj don't crush each other to death. I was struck by the technicality of Still's exposition and so, when crowds took to the streets across the Middle East, it seemed to me that he was the person to consult, rather than some woolly-minded foreign-policy expert.

Fatal attraction

I sent Professor Still a suitably humble email: "I appreciate that your methodology is not able to tell us whether or not crowd power will oust Mubarak but, nonetheless, it does occur to me that there is some kind of metric at work in the interaction between largely unarmed demonstrators, passive troops and active police - I wondered if you had any comment?" As quickly as a stampeding mob came back the prof's reply: "We have
a range of models for assessing risk to the crowd and this is the sort of application we use for training purposes. I'm not sure I could comment further, other than that the type of work I do is related to understanding crowd behaviour and anticipating action/ reaction in this kind of situation." He then referred me to his website.

Rather than being chagrined, I was gratified. There's a fabulous section on Still's site that details incidents of "crowd crazing", when businesses hype up crowds for sales and openings. One fatal "crazing" happened in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2004, when 20,000 people turned up for the opening of a new Ikea. I dare say Still's crowd dynamics might have prevented this - but only Canetti could have explained it.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City