Drawing inspiration from natural swarms rather than facebook dynamics…
The blockchain technology is empowering new ways of being and organizing ourselves, far away from what has been the last centuries’ modes of human labor. It is also proposing alternative manners to gather around products and contents. It is clear that new ways of organizing attention and reputation systems have emerged as crucial factors of the socio-economic landscape. The use of blockchain to reorienting these to be more private, preserving and fair could emerge as one of the main revolutions of web3.
In a way, this could mark a return to a very primitive and strong basis of how collaboration unfolds in nature, and draw inspration from it. Complex societies such as those of ants, bees and termites, provide an extraordinary example of collective organizations, based on the “spirit” of the swarm, or more particularly on a game of very simple reactions, curiously adapted to the good of the colony. But is this natural ecology existing within swarms, still possible in a human organization, and moreover in a society having so far drawn its diversity from a form of individualism — facebook version? In his “Psychology of crowds”, Gustave Le Bon assures us that last century and time to come, will be unequivocally “ time of crowds”. What a better time to review studies about natural swarms?
In 1956, Horton and Wohl referred to a very strong phenomena they called “parasocial”. That term qualifies a psychological relationship, experienced by the audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media: personalities almost like friends. This way of referring to idols, to leaders, to influencers, has not allowed “real collaboration” in the web we know today, because this focus on certain individuals, actually centralizes attention on too few interpretations of truth, and as we know, centralization has never conducted to a fair conclusion. So what should we do? Should we repair this way of “being and creating together” using these forms of organisation through “influence”, or, on the contrary, should we focus on bases drawing inspiration from complex and primitive organizations in nature, and propose a step back. In order to modestly study ways of making this happen, let’s refer to what we know (or don’t know) about complex social organisations.
As a beekeeper’s daughter and granddaughter, I have developed very young, a real fascination for colonies of insects, and the way in which these swarms express themselves and self-organize. Let’s take termites to start because the term we are firstly going to focus on, has been introduced by Pierre-Paul Grassé, a very important french zoologist while observing termites. This term is what he named “stigmergy”, and designate the “property that has a product to excite the laborer” or said differently, “the stimulation of the laborers by the work they are realizing”.
By observing a termites colony, he explains how the laborers are first going to gather some wood elements. This first step will unfold in an apparent mess, but, after a while, it seems quite obvious that a laborer will put his own piece of wood on top of another. It turns out that this embryo of the structure taking form will more and more excite the laborers to bring an extra floor to the set.
What we can see here is precisely a form of coordination happening through a serie of uncorrelated effects, for the sake of the finished product, but without explicit or organized coordination taking over. The capacity of the product to be built goes through an oriented “happy hazard” for one “brick” of a laborer will statistically meet another one.
The same idea is explicated by Etienne Rabaud when he says “there exists, one might say, an external coordination, a very simple set of reactions whose effect almost always goes in the direction of accomplishment of the common work”.
The same thing appears in ants colonies, and we know this very well, as we were inspired by their “horror of blank” to design what has become one of our most used algorithm family — heuristic algorithms. So in a way, we are already using nature miracles, inspiring from their efficiency and their reliability of having a job done. What we should draw inspiration from a bit more is this undeniable fact that the interest of an ant will always be the general interest. As humans will certainly never be as devoted to the common will as ants, we could get inspired by this stigmergy and create spaces where one’s brick will have several chances of encountering another one’s brick.
Coming back to ants, Adolf Meyer had a very interesting observation that resonates deeply with what we know about long tail theory. Based on his analysis, he manages to define which colonies of “giant” ants (larger in size but fewer in individuals) or colonies of “dwarfs” (barely a millimeter long but can gather in millions) possess the most complex behavior. The conclusion is clear. The dwarfs are far more intelligent than the others and are the ones that have been inventing agriculture, art of war and breeding.
Meyer goes further. He considers the subsystems that are organized within a global organization (which is obviously the case in insect organizations since not everyone does the same thing), and arrives at the conclusion that the general adaptation will be all the more rapid that the particular adaptations will resound less with each other. Subsystems must not be too richly interconnected as “there must be a number of acts that are absurd for the system to work”.
This observation gives another thought about what a “superorganism” should look like, not as a set of experts that can be interdependent one from another, but as a joint coordination of spontaneous movements going in the same direction. In the brain, too, no particular cell supports individually the intelligence, and none, taken in isolation, is very important. It is the whole network of cells and informations that counts and not one isolated link in particular.
In bees, another working order is observable. A bee will not occupy the same role during its entire lifetime. On the contrary, the role of a bee will evolve in seven stages, what we call the 7 “professions” of the bee. It will first be a cleaner bee, than a nanny bee, a logistic bee, a mason bee, a ventilator bee, a guard bee and finally a forager. Bees actually stay in the hive for a very long period and are only allowed to get out at the end of their lives. What we can observe here is a functioning that leads to the adaptability required by the global organization. This ability to upgrade, to evolve throughout the practice of a collective and collaborative social intelligence is the success key of the hive organization.
As we can see, complex social organisms from nature are very different from our human ways of interacting with each other and moreover, of how we work together. Why? Because our way of behaving in a set, always, or almost always, depends on an interpretation of what we do in this set, of the position we occupy, of a reflex to hierarchy, to individualism… We know that humans will never act like complex swarms. It’s undeniable! Too much individual interests are implicated to make this happen. But, could we draw inspiration from this stigmergy? Could we promote ecosystems valuating thousand ways of building, as long as theses ways are undertaken in a common sense. From this point of view, governance is effectively a crucial point in research for common organization. But not only. It also appear that the general direction of this common goal must be relevant, shared, and clear for everyone, at least at a certain point.
So, the question I am asking here is the real success of such an enterprise in our facebook society? Is it yet relevant to focus on governance, if the final goal of our organizations is not predetermined, and if what the laborers retain is this search is positioning and not the common ending?
Reputation systems, dApps, governance models, etc. have to be calibrated with great care and a lot of anticipation because it has to create tomorrow’s conditions for a beneficial way of collaborating, and encourage a sort of stigmergy.