Arise, amoebas!

What, exactly is Occupy? It is obviously not an organization or a political party, nor is it defined by a specific goal or activity. Yes, it’s a “meme”— a contagious idea—that promotes discussion and prompts people into action, but what do you call the social phenomenon itself? How do you describe hundreds of actions, all linked yet independent, all ephemeral yet recurring, spread across the world, arising unpredictably and evolving constantly? I always wrinkle my nose a bit when, for lack of a better term, I write “movement,” as it seems so inadequate.

“Happening,” doesn’t fit either, as happenings are more organized, apolitical, artistic events, usually within a set time span and location (think Burning Man). “Flash mobs” or “smart mobs” (flash mobs with a political purpose) also come close, but are typically short-lived, one-off events. We’re trying to describe a series of actions and ideas and the social substrate that spawns them. “This is different,” is a phrase I hear repeatedly when talking with Occupiers, whether active participants at camps or people who support the idea. It’s that different-ness that makes it so hard to label.

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“Slime molds”—not actually molds or fungi—are biologically fascinating aggregations of amoeba-like organisms that appear overnight on the ground or rotting wood as big, often colorful, blobs. They have many forms, but these are the ones we usually see and say “WTF?” or just “eww!”. Scientists call them “social amoebae,” because, while made up of individual, autonomous, microscopic organisms that spend most of their lives alone in the dirt or water, they eventually coalesce into giant, visible clusters for mass feeding and reproducing.

When conditions are right, individuals send out chemical signals enabling them to find each other. Eventually aggregating into above-ground blobs, they then move rapidly (well, rapidly for something without feet) in search of food, devouring bacteria and organic matter and eventually taking on the reproductive form that we see as the flashy, if somewhat creepy growths.

"Dog vomit" Slime mold. From Wikipedia.org

Their activity as a large, single-membraned unit, called a plasmodium, is driven by the same decentralized, “smart swarm” intelligence—a form of distributed computing common in nature—that also generates the complex, adaptive behavior of flocking birds and schooling fish. They have been shown to be able to solve mazes in search of food and in one famous experiment, modeled an efficient hypothetical rail network for Tokyo when pieces of food were arranged in a geographical representation of that city. Some slime molds even “farm” and store their own bacteria as food and carry it with them for lean times.* Once the spores are dropped after the reproductive phase, the visible growth rots back into the soil and the cycle starts over again.

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I can think of no better example or comparison to Occupy than slime molds, however problematic it is from a PR point of view. What else but the slime mold life cycle describes dispersed, networked individuals existing in seeming isolation who then coalesce out of nowhere to form visible, purposeful manifestations and engage in collective, leaderless problem solving? Chemical signals for the amoebas to aggregate are what memes and calls-to-action are to people involved in Occupy. Occupy’s focused actions can be compared to the temporary, large, active phase of the “molds” (the motile phase, plasmodia, or the fruiting bodies, sporangia). Rumor-debunking on the social network Twitter uses a similar swarm intelligence as that used by the slime mold to solve problems.

I wish I had a more public-image-friendly example, or that slime molds were called something more evocative, fluffy and romantic, or that they were made up of cute, doe-eyed little creatures. Either way, I realize it is not a meme that will gain wide acceptance any time soon or be adopted as Occupy’s mascot. Except maybe among some biologists.

Occupy is so impossible to describe in traditional terms because it is a new social form: a paradoxical mix of intention and unpredictability, an ad-hocracy of dispersed, yet united individuals who form temporarily-purposeful masses and then disperse before regrouping again in new forms and new places. “Smart mold,” or “flash-slime,” or “plasmodium-happening,” are all just nonstarters as labels. Nor will “Occupy Plasmodium” ever catch on. Ultimately, it’s less important that we have the perfect label or category than that we understand the novel character of Occupy as a harbinger of a future, hyper-networked, inclusive, ad-hocratic, “flash-democracy.” These are the initial evolutionary stirrings of what will eventually be revolutionary changes. If you’re not fascinated yet, you might want to start paying attention.

OccupyCal General Assembly, Sproul Plaza. November 15th, 2011. The crowd eventually swelled to four thousand.

Occupy doesn’t require codification into an official program or list of demands to validate its existence and refuses to fit into any preexisting intellectual box, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t some easily-defined economic and political reforms that people can and probably should focus on. The thing to remember is that having a traditional set of demands or party program or participation in the established political structure is for a different type of animal, one that is not Occupy. I do think people need to use some of this momentum to pressure for targeted change in, say, economic policies. Meanwhile, this new force needs to keep charting its evolutionary trajectory.

Like the gooey, rotting remains of a slime mold fruiting body, the area that formerly housed the ephemeral vibrance of Occupy Oakland’s original encampment is now a sloppy mud puddle, with sprinklers constantly flooding it to keep protesters off. Dubbed “Lake Quan” after the Oakland Mayor who ordered the eviction, it is a silent statement to the continuing presence of OccupyOakland in the life of this city.

Lake Quan, former site of Occupy Oakland encampment in front of city hall, the sprinklers off at the moment.

Many of Occupy’s other prominent encampments across the country have been evicted as well as Oakland’s. In the meantime, we bubbled up a mile away this week and shut down the port for an entire day, coordinated with similar actions the length of the West Coast and around the country. There are still on-going encampments, foreclosure occupations and people quietly transferring money from corporate banks to credit unions en masse, but at any given moment in any given city, there is very little to be seen of Occupy, leading many people to think it has come and gone, everyone calling it a day and returning to their regular lives.

And, indeed, most have. But, like amoebas scattered invisibly throughout the soil, the idea never went away and people are talking, networking, planning and dreaming until the next phase of Occupy, the smartly-contagious idea born of a million individuals who finally managed to find each other.
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*No comparison is intended here to the Occupy encampments’ kitchens!

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