Monday, January 23, 2012

What is the message and what should we do about it??

Following my previous post on emergence and how I would put lots of eggs in the Upgrade Democracy basket, I decided to share a few lines from this book. I happened to find stories about ants in different readings and so far, the ones told in this book as well as in Bioteams, got my undivided attention. I'll just share my highlights of a particular chapter called "Street Level". 

Deborah Gordon studied harvester ants and she says to Steven "I was interested in systems where individuals who are unable to assess the global situation still work together in a coordinated way...and they manage to do it using only local information".

Steven says 
"local turns out to be the key term in understanding the power of swarm logic...They think and act locally, but theur collective action produces global behavior...Communication between workers in colonies of the fire ant...relies on a vocabulary of ten signals, 9 of which are based on pheromones. Among other things, these semiochemicals code for task recognition ("I'm on foraging duty"); trail attraction ("There is food over here"); alarm behaviour ("Run away"); and necrophoric behaviour ("Let's get rid of these dead comrades"). 
...ants can also detect gradients in pheromones. Gradients in the pheromone trail are the difference between saying "there is food around here somewhere" and "There's food due north of here.
...The harvester ants...are also particularly adept at measuring  the frequency of certain semiochemlicals. Ants can sense the difference between encountering 10 foraging ants in an hour and encountering a hundred. Individual ants have no way of knowing how many foragers or nest-builders or trash collectors are on duty at any given time, but they can keep track of how many members of each group the've stumbled across in their daily travels. based on that information - both the pheromone signal itself and its frequency over time - they can adjust their behaviour and act accordingly.
Of course, it's always possible that an individual ant randomly stumble across a disproportionate number of foragers and thus overestimate the global foraging state and change her behaviour accordingly. But because decision-making process is spread our over a thousands of individuals, the margin of error is vanishingly small. For every ant that happens to overestimate the number of foragers on duty, there is one that underestimates. With a large enough colony, the two will eventually cancel each other out, and an accurate reading will emerge.

5 Principles to build systems designed to learn from the ground level, where macrointelligence and adaptability derive from local knowledge:

1. More is different: "The statistical nature of ant interaction demands that there be a critical mass of ants for the colony to make intelligent assessments of its global state... If we only studied individuals ants in isolation, we'd have no way of knowing that those chemical secretions were part of an overall effort to create a mass distribution line..."

2. Ignorance is useful: "Emergent systems can grow unwieldy when their component parts become excesively complicated. Better to build a densely interconnected system with simple elements, and let the more sophisticated behaviour trickle up"

3. Encourage random encounters: Descentralized systems...rely heavily on random interactions, exploring a given space without predefined orders. Without [them], the colony wouldn't be capable of stumbling accross new food sources or of adapting to new environmental conditions".

4. "Look for patterns in the signs: "A gradient in pheromone trail leads them toward food source, while encountering a high ration of nest-builders to foragers encourages them to switch tracks"

5. Pay attention to your neighbours: "local information can lead to global wisdom"

Undoubtedly, I have had many virtual encounters with citizens more than unsatisfied with the SOPA legislation which to me, only uncovers the incoherence of our current outdated democratic system. I don't think that bill will achieve its goal, I think citizens won't let that happen. But the strong "pheromone trail" I smell can only motivate me to create another option. At this precise moment where the debate is so heated, the proposal of a new democratic system may sound provoking and enticing to organizations There is nothing to lose if we ask.

This book is giving me a lot of food for thought and inspiring. It is also very relevant to my ideas of localization and human systems that consciously decide to behave life-like. 

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