Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

In my paper and throughout the "happening" I have argued that we are similar to ants in that blogs are exhibiting a emergent intelligence beyond that of the individual blogs. This is one of the few points that people seem to feel strongly divided about. Liz Lawley blogs

Liz Lawley
But I did still manage to extract key concepts from what we discussed. Key among them was the rallying cry among several participants that "We are not ants!" What does that mean? Well, we were discussing Steven Johnson's book Emergence , in which he discusses the emergent behavior/intelligence in environments like ant colonies. The problem, several of us noted, is that ants do not have much self-awareness, while people do. (Yes, I know, that can be argued on many levels. Let's take it as a given for now.)
Steven Johnson describes the ant-like aspect of blogging much better than me in his blog.
Steven Johnson
The objection revolves around the fact that humans are both more nuanced than ants in their assessments of the world and their decision-making capacity, and that they're capable of understanding the dynamics of the larger system in ways that ants cannot. As Adina Levin says, "The atoms of ant action are simple: pick up crumb, bring crumb to ant colony. The atoms of human action are more complicated: identify people and groups interested in opposing Total Information Act, encourage people to persuade local congressperson."

I think there's a lot of validity to the distinction, but I still think there's value in thinking about ants in this context. To me, when you're talking about emergent democracy in the online world, the equivalent of the ant is not the individual human, it's the software. The atoms of human action are indeed incredibly sophisticated ones, but the atoms of software that enables those actions to connect in new ways are much simpler. It's more like: "follow this link, connect this page to other pages that share links, look for patterns in the links." The decision-making process that leads one human to link to another person's page is indeed more complex than the instinctual actions of ants following pheromones, but the decision of the software to manipulate those links, and learn from them, is much more like the way ants behave ---- or at least it could be, if we choose to build it that way.

In my comments section of the emergent democracy paper, Howard Rheingold says to think about he public sphere, Ashley Benigno, says "Instead of being viewed as enablers, the tools come across as drivers of a process. Ultimately, the human experience is missing from the picture." and she blogs about it on her weblog.

So there are two very important but separate issues here: the will of the people and the social aspect of what's going on and what it means and what we can do and the tools, architecture and the way the tools interact with each other to create a feedback mechanism that increases the signal to noise ratio and encourages intelligence. They relate to each other, but the tools for thinking about these two aspects come from different disciplines and the key will be to try to allow these two disciplines to cross-pollinate and add value to each other, rather than scaring each other away.


The ant-like behaviour comes not from acting like ants but using one of their communication mechanisms: stigmergy.

More unsettling, what are the most important differences between us and ants? The ant colony shows emergent behavior more intelligent than any particular ant, but human politics doesn't always show emergent behavior more intelligent than the wisest humans.

I honestly think part of the problem is that ants are creepy crawly things - if fireflies show complex emergent behavior people might accept the analogy better. More disturbingly, even if our group behavior is more complex than that of ants, it is not always more purposeful - there may be an existential threat in thinking about this. I say this as someone who believes we can shape ourselves into an awesome spiritual entity.

Maybe even the analogy of bacteria would be more appealing, with their constant orgies of interchange of genetic material.

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