Book of the Week (2): excerpts from Insect Media, our animal internet

* Book: Insect Media. An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Jussi Parikka. University of Minnesota Press,2010

In our final installment dedicated to Jussa Parrika‘s book, two excerpts showing how the internet and media are extensions of animality, rather than of our humanity:

Genesis of Form: Insect Architecture and Swarms

From chapter II:

“Social insects provided lessons in strange, unrecognized forms of being social. A good example is found in Maeterlinck’s novel A Life of the Bee (1901), in which the topic of “the spirit of the hive” is constantly brought up. It could be seen as an expression of mysticism, a natural theology of a kind, but at the same time it connects to the topic of collective intelligence then emerging. Maeterlinck considered this spirit not as a particularly tuned instinct that specifies a task and not as a mechanical habit but as a curious logic that cannot be pinpointed to any specific role, order, or function. The spirit of the hive seems to be responsible for the abrupt but still recurring collective actions that take hold of the bees (as in possessed individuals) and concert their actions as if they were one. The spirit of the hive sees that the individual bees’ actions are harmonized to such an extent that they can exist as a collective: from the queen’s impregnation to the sudden swarming when the bees leave the old nest (without apparent reason) and find a new one, the spirit of the hive is described by a mix of nomadic intuition that “passes the limits of human morality” to the everyday organization of the hive:

It regulates the workers’ labors, with due regard to their age; it allots their task to the nurses who tend the nymphs and the larvae, the ladies of honor who wait on the queen and never allow her out of their sight; the house-bees who air, refresh and heat the hive by fanning their wings, and hasten the evaporation of the honey that may be too highly charged with water; the architects, masons, wax-workers, and sculptors who form the chain and construct the combs; the foragers who sally forth to the flowers in search of the nectar that turns into honey.

This seemingly automated behavior is described by Maeterlinck as a “strange emotion.” Here the emotion acts as a trigger of a kind that points to the way bodies are affectively coordinated in the organizational form. The swarm is a becoming that expresses potentialities that are always situated and yet moving. The affects that trigger the swarming and the birth of the new collective are related to communication in Maeterlinck’s view. This mode of communication happens not on the level of consciousness, human language and concepts, but as affects of murmur, whisper, and a refrain that even the bees might not hear but sense in some uncanny way. (48-50)


The interest in swarms was intimately connected to the research on emergence and “superorganisms” that arose during the early years of the twentieth century, especially in the 1920s. Even though the author of the notion of superorganisms was the now somewhat discredited writer Herbert Spencer, who introduced it in 1898, the idea was fed into contemporary discourse surrounding swarms” and emergence through myrmecologist William Morton Wheeler. In 1911 Wheeler had published his classic article “The Ant Colony as an Organism” (in Journal of Morphology), and similar interests continued to be expressed in his subsequent writings. His ideas became well known in the 1990s in discussions concerning artificial life and holistic swarmlike organization. For writers such as Kevin Kelly, mentioned earlier in this chapter, Wheeler’s ideas regarding superorganisms stood as the inspiration for the hype surrounding emergent behavior.64 Yet the actual context of his paper was a lecture given at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole in 1910. As Charlotte Sleigh points out, Wheeler saw himself as continuing the work of holistic philosophers, and later, in the 1910s and 1920s, found affinities with Bergson’s philosophy of temporality as well.66 In 1926, when emergence had already been discussed in terms of, for example emergent evolution, evolutionary naturalism, creative synthesis, organicism, and emergent vitalism, Wheeler noted that this phenomenon seemed to challenge the basic dualisms of determinism versus freedom, mechanism versus vitalism, and the many versus the one. An animal phenomenon thus presented a crisis for the fundamental philosophical concepts that did not seem to apply to such a transversal mode of organization, or agencement to use the term that Wheeler coined. It was a challenge to philosophy and simultaneously to the physical, chemical, psychological, and social sciences, a phenomenon that seemed to cut through these seemingly disconnected spheres of reality. (51-52)”

Biomorphs and Boids. Swarming Algorithms

From Chapter VI:

“The popular cultural boom was spurred by scientific research into swarms and “the social insect metaphor”46 from the early 1990s. Ant colony optimization research with scholars such as Marco Dorigo became a large field of interfacing ants with new technologies—for example, when routing British Telecom calls. The field was based on the realization that there are various levels of complexity to simple things, such as ants, and their sensorimotor complexity is doubled by collective interaction. Swarm intelligence started to refer to “any attempt to design algorithms or distributed problem-solving devices inspired by the collective behavior of social insect colonies and other animal societies.”48 As Bonabeau, Dorigo, and Theraulaz explain in their book on the topic, the designs were about operationalizing insect capacities for optimizing certain search spaces. The fluctuations in their aberrant walks, errors, and so on was to be made use of as rational probeheading that enabled the discovery of solutions for complex mathematical tasks, such as the traveling salesman graph problem or vehicle-routing and graph-coloring problems.

Ant-based algorithms promised efficient solutions for the emerging network society, which, for all its intelligence, needed a bit of insect instinct. For example, the pheromone trails ants used between nest and food were modeled into a virtual pheromone network in which the most efficient paths could be explored through antlike trackings. The ant colonies can be seen as continuously mapping the available food sources near the nest and marking the environments with pheromone trails—a certain kind of gridding of the environment. The environment was turned into a hierarchical space based on its potential usefulness for the ants. The intensity of the milieu became a marked space, a space for orientation and guidance. (160-161)”

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