Agency is all very well, but sometimes pulling the focus back can tell us some interesting things about human behavior.
The BBC story below, on the phenomena of love-locks, interested me as it’s a great example of how human behavior can feedback on itself and create really interesting signatures in human landscapes.
I’m interested in how we define and interpret ‘place’ in really early prehistory and in my PhD research looked at assemblages dominated by huge number of bifaces; large stone cutting tools that occur in their hundreds or thousands at certain places. I suggested their presence in such large numbers at certain places could be indicative of systems of structured transport and discard, with pre-existing biface clusters actively cueing more discard of similar material.
Thinking about these things means I’m always looking in our urban landscapes for similar behavior cued by non-verbal spontaneous signalling. Examples I often see are:
- Where people put their bags and coats on the floor at parties or conference receptions.
- Where people discard trash when there isn’t a bin.
- Where people stick chewing gum
- The placing of flowers after an accident or tragedy
- The tossing of coins in fountains or ponds.
In each case someone had to be the first to toss a coin in the pond, place an empty drinks can on a window sill or lay a bunch of flowers. But the presence of that object changes the landscape dynamic, and other will cognitively engage (largely unconsciously) and modify their behavior accordingly. In the case of coins deposition, we don’t even live in a society where we actively believe in votive deposition. Interestingly, the practise has become largely externalized and encoded into the landscape by people discarding their money, initially on an individual, spontaneous basis, but then cueing watery discard to a hugely amplified degree.
The placing of locks on bridges has no deep roots as a behavior or explicit body of belief behind it. However, the visibility, emotional charge and built-in permanence of the landscape signature left by the behavior is obvious. It would lead you predict that they have the capability to create a profound level of engagement from people encountering these assemblages; leading, over time, to a very amplified landscape signature.
I still feel understanding the nature of these feedback mechanisms and their role in structuring human behavior at landscapes scales is an interesting approach to considering how we self-organize in complex ways as a species. When it comes to understanding individual behavior, or those of small groups, it cautions us against placing too much emphasis on what is going on in the individual’s mind. It might point the way to understanding the human hive and the fundamental stigmergic, viral behaviors and material structures it’s built upon.