[This is the second of a series of excerpts from my book-in-progress, Desktop Regulatory State (free online version of manuscript to date at the link)]
Networked organization is based on a principle known as stigmergy. “Stigmergy” is a term coined by biologist Pierre-Paul Grasse in the 1950s to describe the process by which termites coordinate their activity. Social insects like termites and ants coordinate their efforts through the independent responses of individuals to environmental triggers like chemical markers, without any need for a central coordinating authority.
Applied by way of analogy to human society, stigmergy refers primarily to the kinds of networked organization associated with wikis, group blogs, and “leaderless” organizations configured along the lines of networked cells.
Mark Elliott, whose doctoral dissertation is probably the most thorough and comprehensive treatment of stigmergy to date, contrasts stigmergic coordination with social negotiation. Social negotiation is the traditional method of organizing collaborative group efforts, through agreements and compromise mediated by discussions between individuals. The exponential growth in the number of communications with the size of the group, obviously, imposes constraints on the feasible size of a collaborative group, before coordination must be achieved by hierarchy and top-down authority. Stigmergy, on the other hand, permits collaboration on an unlimited scale by individuals acting independently. This distinction between social negotiation and stigmergy is illustrated, in particular, by the contrast between traditional models of co-authoring and collaboration in a wiki. Individuals communicate indirectly, “via the stigmergic medium.”
The distinction between social negotiation and stigmergic coordination parallels Elliott’s distinction, elsewhere, between “discursive collaboration” and “stigmergic collaboration.” The “discursive elaboration of shared representations (ideas)” is replaced by “the annotation of material and digital artefacts as embodiments of these representations.” “Additionally, when stigmergic collaboration is extended by computing and digital networks, a considerable augmentation of processing capacity takes place which allows for the bridging of the spatial and temporal limitations of discursive collaboration, while subtly shifting points of negotiation and interaction away from the social and towards the cultural.” [Mark Elliott, Stigmergic Collaboration: A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration. Doctoral Dissertation, Centre for Ideas, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne (October 2007) , pp. 9-10]
David de Ugarte quotes the Rand theorists John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, in “Swarming and the Future of Conflict.” “[N]etwar,” they say,
is a privateers’ war in which many small units “already know what they must do”, and are aware that “they must communicate with each other not in order to prepare for action, but only as a consequence of action, and, above all, through action.” [The Power of Networks (pdf)]
Critics of “digital communism” like Jaron Lanier and Mark Helprin, who condemn network culture for submerging “individual authorial voice” in the “collective,” couldn’t be more clueless if they tried. Stigmergy synthesizes the highest realizations of both individualism and collectivism, and represents each of them in its most completely actualized form, without qualifying or impairing either in any way.
Stigmergy is not “collectivist” in the traditional sense, as it was understood in the days when a common effort on any significant scale required a large organization to represent the collective, and the administrative coordination of individual efforts through a hierarchy. But it is the ultimate realization of collectivism, in that it removes the transaction cost of concerted action by many individuals.
It is the ultimate in individualism because all actions are the free actions of individuals, and the “collective” is simply the sum total of individual actions. Every individual is free to formulate any innovation she sees fit, without any need for permission from the collective. Every individual or voluntary association of individuals is free to adopt the innovation, or not, as they see fit. The extent to which any innovation is adopted results entirely from the unanimous consent of every voluntary grouping that adopts it. Each innovation is modular (meaning the project “can be broken down into smaller components… that can be independently produced before they are assembled into a whole”) [Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks], and may be adopted into any number of larger projects where it is found useful. Any grouping where there is disagreement over adoption may fork and replicate their project with or without the innovation.
In this regard it attains the radical democratic ideal of unanimous consent of the governed, which is never completely possible under any representative or majoritarian system. Consent—the extent of the individual’s partcipation in the decisions that affected her—was the central value of Jeffersonian democracy. The smaller the unit of governance, and the closer it was to the individual, the closer it approached the ideal of unanimous consent to all acts of government. Hence Jefferson’s ward republics, whose chief virtue was the increased role of each individual in influencing the outcome of policy. But this ideal can only be fully attained when the unit of governance is the individual. So majority rule was the lesser evil, a way to approximate as closely as possible to the spirit of unanimous consent when an entire group of people had to be bound by a single decision. Stigmergy removes the need for any individual to be bound by the group will. When all group actions reflect the unanimous will of the participants, as permitted by stigmergic organization, the ideal of unanimous consent is finally achieved in its fullness.
Group action is facilitated with greater ease and lower transaction costs than ever before, but all “group actions” are the unanimous actions of the participating individuals. A good example is Raymond’s “Bazaar” model of open-source development, as illustrated in a hypothetical case by Benkler:
Imagine that one person, or a small group of friends, wants a utility. It could be a text editor, photo-retouching software, or an operating system. The person or small group starts by developing a part of this project, up to a point where the whole utility—if it is simple enough—or some important part of it, is functional, though it might have much room for improvement. At this point, the person makes the program freely available to others, with its source code—instructions in a human-readable language that explains how the software does whatever it does when compiled into a machine-readable language. When others begin to use it, they may find bugs, or related utilities that they want to add (e.g., the photo-retouching software only increases size and sharpness, and one of its users wants it to allow changing colors as well). The person who has found the bug or is interested in how to add functions to the software may or may not be the best person in the world to actually write the software fix. Nevertheless, he reports the bug or the new need in an Internet forum of users of the software. That person, or someone else, then thinks that they have a way of tweaking the software to fix the bug or add the new utility. They then do so, just as the first person did, and release a new version of the software with the fix or the added utility. The result is a collaboration between three people—the first author, who wrote the initial software; the second person, who identified a problem or shortcoming; and the third person, who fixed it. This collaboration is not managed by anyone who organizes the three, but is instead the outcome of them all reading the same Internet-based forum and using the same software, which is released under an open, rather than proprietary, license. This enables some of its users to identify problems without asking anyone’s permission and without engaging in any transactions.
This has had revolutionary implications for the balance of power between networks and hierarchies, and almost unimaginably empowered individuals and small groups against large organizations.
In a hierarchy, all communications between members or between local nodes must pass through a limited number of central nodes. The only communications which are allowed to pass from one member or local node to another are those which meet the standards for distribution of those who control the central nodes. Only a few nodes within a hierarchy have the power to transmit; hence the use of the phrase “one-to-many” to describe its topology. The version of local news that appears in the local newspaper under the byline of a local journalist may be far superior in relevant detail and analysis, but it is the wire service version—even if far inferior in quality—which appears in local newspapers all around the world. It is only the communications approved by the Party Secretariat that are heard by all local cells of a party. [de Ugarte, The Power of Networks]
In a distributed network, on the other hand, every node has the power to transmit, and any two nodes can communicate directly with each other without passing through a central node or obtaining the approval of whoever controls that node. A network is “plurarchical,” in de Ugarte’s terminology, rather than democratic. Instead of the individual members simply selecting who controls the central nodes, “[s]omeone makes a proposal and everyone who wishes to join in can do so. The range of the action in question will depend on the degree to which the proposal is accepted. This system is called a pluriarchy….” Democracy is a “scarcity system” in which decision-making power is rivalrous: “the collective must face an either/or choice, between one filter and another, between one representative and another.” In a distributed network, on the other hand, decision-making power is non-rivalrous. Each individual’s decision affects only herself, and does not impede the ability of others to do likewise. “Even if the majority not only disagreed with a proposal, but also acted against it, it wouldn’t be able to prevent the proposal from being carried out.” “[I]n the blogosphere,” de Ugarte writes elsewhere,
a space where the social cost of an extra post is zero, any blogger’s publishing his or her information does not decrease anyone else’s publication possibilities. The marginal cost is zero. The need to collectively decide what is published and what is not simply disappears. As opposed to scarcity logic, which generates the need for democratic decision, abundant logic opens the door to pluriarchy.
In such a universe, every collective or hierarchical decision on what to publish or not can only be conceived as an artificial generation of scarcity, a decrease in diversity, and an impoverishment for all. [de Ugarte, Phyles (pdf)]