The Ants are Blogging
When Eric Bonabeau was speaking at Etech on Biological Models of Computing, I couldn't help but think about the parallels between the emergent behaviour of ants and blogging. Its a core insight from Joi's Emergent Democracy paper, upon which we spent much energy discussing whether people are ants. Steven Johnson, whose book Emergence uses ant colonies as examples of self-forming bottom-up behavior, pointed out blogging software is the ant:
...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...
Perhaps its because blogging software is simple, emphasizing content over form, that such complex and powerful use emerges.
Eric gave the example of how ants swarm in paths to food. Ants build possible paths and leave behind pheremones, Ants who follow paths reinforce it with their own pheremones and pheremone evaporates. Perhaps each blog post is a possible path (a meme). Readers can reinforce the meme by posting it themselves. The swarm continues until people stop posting on the meme and it evaporates. Reinforcement, a characteristic less visible than in the mass media, can sustain a meme beyond the newscycle as was the case with Trent Lott's ouster. In the blogosystem memes evaporate quickly, posts dissappear below the fold.
Another example Eric gave was on bucket-brigades in harvester ants. These colonies have ants in three sizes. When the colony is small, all ants perform the same food collection duty. But as it scales, they specialize, organizing labor by increasing efficiency. The smallest ant collects the food and passes it to a medium size ant who hands off to the largest and most efficient ant to finish the task. In the blogosystem, each blog has varying efficiency for distribution of a meme. A new meme can be created by someone relatively unknown and filter through their creative, social and political network until widely distributed. If a meme has a given fitness level, it need only be modestly connected to the periphery of the network to reach the core.
These systems exhibit a larger intelligence without having someone be centrally in control. However, like with ants there is a danger. Ants have laid circular trails of pheremones that led to their isolation and death. And since pheremones excite the ants, the more they lay the faster they go, they can exhaust themselves to death. The danger is always real for a culture to isolates itself or fails to pace its development.