Archive for April, 2009

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Adam Smith, Power Laws and the Social Networks of the Ant Colony


To support a conjecture in the world of humans, we often point to the natural world as some kind of final arbiter. “You see, this is the way it works in nature, therefore this is the way it is.” Aesop’s fable about the Ant and the Grasshopper has been used in this way in political circles for years. The social behavior of ants and bees has also been of particular interest to those of us thinking about the complex digital social networks emerging all around us. We take the folk wisdom of Aesop as gospel, and using that tool, we make an attempt at interpretation. Ants are industrious, collective and coordinated. If only people could join together in such a natural kind of cooperation. It’s only our human foibles that prevent this return to Eden.

Meanwhile, Anna Dornhaus, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been painting ants. She does this so that she can track the individual behavior of a particular ant. Despite the anthropomorphism of Aesop’s fable, we tend to think of ants as a swarm of ants– as a collective. In a fascinating profile of Dornhaus by Adele Conover in the NY Times, we discover that:

“The specialists aren’t necessarily good at their jobs,? said Dornhaus. “And the other ants don’t seem to recognize their lack of ability.?

Dr. Dornhaus found that fast ants took one to five minutes to perform a task — collecting a piece of food, fetching a sand-grain stone to build a wall, transporting a brood item — while slow ants took more than an hour, and sometimes two. And she discovered that about 50 percent of the other ants do not do any work at all. In fact, small colonies may sometimes rely on a single hyperactive overachiever.

A few days ago I was re-reading Clay Shirky’s blog post on Power Laws and Blogging which describes the distribution of popularity within the blogosphere. In his book, Here Comes Everybody, he expands this idea of self-organizing systems and power law distributions to describe how things generally get done in social networks like Wikipedia. Aspects of the process have also been described by Yochai Benkler and called commons-based peer production.

Shirky’s work combined with Dornhaus’s gives you a view into the distribution of labor within the commons of a social network. Benkler’s “book” The Wealth of Networks is a play on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and in Dornhaus’s experiments we find some interesting contrary data to Smith’s conjecture:

My results indicate that at least in this species (ants), a task is not primarily performed by individuals that are especially adapted to it (by whatever mechanism). This result implies that if social insects are collectively successful, this is not obviously for the reason that they employ specialized workers who perform better individually.

As Mark Thoma notes, Adam Smith cites three benefits from specialization:

  1. The worker would become more adept at the task.
  2. The time saved from not changing tasks.
  3. With specialization, tasks can be isolated and identified, and machinery can be built to do the job in place of labor.

As we begin to think about the characteristics of “swarming behavior” within digital networks, we can now start to “paint the ants” and look much more closely at how things get done within the swarm. Digital ants may all behave identically, but ants as we find them in nature behave unpredictably. Rilke notes that “we are the bees of the invisible,” but is a bee simply a bee?

Unknown And No Longer Optional

In his first address to Congress, our new President said that a college education was no longer optional. Education is a high priority and an important driver for the recovery of our economy. When we talk about a “college education,” we seem to know exactly what we’re talking about. We know about the Ivy League schools, the great technical schools, the football schools, the party schools, the medical schools, the law schools and the business schools. We need to learn to learn, and that’s what a college education seems to be good for. If adaptive behavior is the key to survival in a changing environment, then learning how to adapt would be a requirement for prospering in uncertain times.

Just we all seem to agree that everyone must have one– that it’s no longer optional, Mark C. Taylor throws the whole thing into question. I’m sure he doesn’t question that we all must have one, he simply questions what a college education is– or rather what it should be in this emerging network culture. He outlines his ideas in a piece for the NY Times. In brief, here are his six points:

  1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with the graduate program and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structures like a web or complex adaptive network.
  2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years, each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. Possible topics might include: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
  3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting.
  4. Transform the traditional dissertation. Do not write traditional traditional papers or graduate theses, rather develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games.
  5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained.
  6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Tenure should be replaced with seven year contracts, which like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed.

Is our emerging network culture really still emerging? Oprah is on Twitter. The Web is already primarily social and is moving fast. The public relations and marketing industries are scrambling to transform themselves to be operational in a two-way many-to-many network grid. Our students are already networked. Imagine if our universities were not only institutions of learning, but also learning institutions– adaptive in the mode we intend our students to be.

2-Way Asymmetric Networks: Robots Call Me All The Time, Yet I Never Call Them


There are a number of stories that have been running through my playlist recently. The theme, the question, has to do with what I call spammable identity endpoints. With the growth of dual one-way asymmetric follow networks, I wonder if we are creating new communications channels that will make the phone number and email address obsolete?

Here are the stories:

Avital Ronell’s “book” called The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, opens with a description of our relationship with the node of the Network that the telephone represents:

…And yet, you’re saying yes, almost automatically, suddenly, sometimes irreversibly. Your picking it up means the call has come through. It means more: you’re its beneficiary, rising to meet its demand, to pay a debt. You don’t know who’s calling or what you are going to be called upon to do, and still, you are lending your ear, giving something up, receiving an order. It is a question of answerability. Who answers the call of the telephone, the call of duty, and accounts for the taxes it appears to impose?

Bruce Sterling may have said something resembling the following at the recent SXSW:

Connectivity will be an indicator of poverty rather than an indicator of wealth.

There’s a story about how cultural norms are solidified and passed to the next generation:

A room contains a researcher and a small stool. Hanging over the stool is a banana on a string. The researcher wears a white lab-coat and holds a fully pressurized fire-hose. An arbitrary number of monkeys is released into the room.

Sooner or later one of them will make for the stool to try and grab the banana. Yet as soon as that monkey climbs the stool and approaches his prize, the researcher lets him have it with the hose. And not only does that monkey get it, but all monkeys in the room (whether they touched the banana or not) get sprayed. After soaking them roughly for a few moments, the researcher turns off the hose.

Perhaps another monkey gets brave or hungry. When he climbs the stool and touches the banana, the researcher lets him have it. And as before, all the monkeys also get doused, whether they moved towards the banana or not. Repeat this process enough and, after the group has suffered enough soakings, the following effect should be noticed: Should any monkey make for the stool, the rest can be counted on to beat him silly before he reaches either it or the banana, sparing themselves. After awhile, the group avoids the banana even as their bellies growl.

Now say the researcher removes a monkey and brings in a new one to replace him. No big surprise, one of his first actions might be to make directly for the banana. And of course the others won’t allow this, for if he should make it they all get sprayed again. They administer a beating to the confused newcomer, until he learns not to near the stool.

Should the experiment continue, perhaps after replacing every monkey in the original generation, one can even remove the researcher. The descendants enforce the social order even though they may never been sprayed or even know about the researcher. By now no monkeys have directly experienced the hose, and in fact no white-coated danger exists, yet still their options are self-curtailed. There is no risk in the banana. Yet they avoid it, none quite certain why.

I’ve heard this story from Clay Shirky, although I can’t seem to find a reference to it (either on my book shelf or on the Network). So I’m going to make something up that Clay might have said:

Marconi invented radio as a means to enable ship-to-shore communication. The intention was to create a one-to-one communications network. It turned out that anyone with a radio listening device could hear the broadcast. In a network with only two radios, transmissions were scoped correctly as one-to-one. On a network with a broadcast radio and many radio receivers– just add some commercials selling soap, and you’ve got modern broadcast radio.

The network transmission characteristics of a technology make an imprint on our cultural practice. We all know that we couldn’t survive without the telephone and email. Going back to the telegraph and the telegram is not an option. We have a unique phone number and email address so that we can reached through the network. We make these identity endpoints findable, so that if it’s important, you can call us. The relation is two-way asymmetric — if my identity endpoint is known, it can be called. For instance, robots call me all the time, and yet I have very little desire to call robots. Although, I suppose I could.

If Twitter had a presence status indicator and full-duplex voice transmission enabled through the direct message channel, how quickly would it replace the telephone? Skype is already the largest international telecom provider in the world. Could a dual one-way asymmetric pub/sub communications network supercede the current network where robots can call me any time they are directed to do so? Or has this already happened, and are we just scrambling to put together the documentation of how it works…

Real Time Identity: A Dance to the Music of Time


These are provisional thoughts, a tentative exploration into what the words ‘real time personal identity’ might mean. (With apologies to Anthony Powell.) It’s often said, with some regret, that the Internet wasn’t designed with an identity layer. Personal identity is a fundamental element, not a simple widget that can be bolted on as an after thought. Although that does seem to be the road we’re traveling on. So we’re left with the observation that in the online world, personal identity is fragmented and dispersed.  Facets of identity appear situationally where ever they’re needed to assure the consistency of a transaction or the state of an experience.

Since the Greeks, the common approach to thinking about time is to speak of a series of “now points.” In a stateless medium like the Web, tracking a personal identity from “now point” to “now point” requires additional apparatus. Each cloud-based domain, or application, takes responsibility for tracking personal identity within its sphere. Although one can easily imagine a consolidation as each cloud application platform begins to offer identity, privacy and audit services. National identities dissolve and re-form under the flags of Google, Microsoft, Amazon and a convergence of financial institutions and telecoms.

Let’s slip the bonds of the Network for a moment and take a look a personal identity in our daily life. As I walk down the street, is there a moment when I am without personal identity? Walking through the crowd, I am anonymous– just a face in the crowd. But I am specifically anonymous– I’m not a blank shell, a default avatar moving through space. I look the way I look. I wear the clothes that I’m wearing. I walk with a purpose that is my own.

Was life itself designed without an identity layer? In the instances in which we transact with other people, businesses, organizations and governmental agencies– additional apparatus have always been required to track us from “now point” to “now point.”

At this particular “now point,” let’s change the frame of reference. Rather than viewing time as a series of discreet points, let’s now think of time as a continuous stream. This is akin to what physicists do when they think of light– now as a particle, now as a wave.

Moving back to the Network, if we view the concept of an application polling another application for status or a data transaction, we have the equivalent of a discreet “now point.” When we begin to discuss “real time” on the Network, there are two separate frames in which the conversation unfolds.

If time is a series of discreet “now points,” then “real time” is a higher number of “now points” per unit of time. Here perhaps, we run into Zeno’s paradox— What is the total number of possible “now points” between this moment and the next moment? If the metronome ticks at 120 beats per minute and we crank the dial up to 200 beats per minute– the music of time becomes much more frantic. To approximate a flow, the “now points” must have a dense frequency (24 frames per second).

The opponents of “real time” often rely on this argument. The music is too fast to dance to– In our haste we’ll make a mis-step. If only the tempo were turned way down, so that each step could be measured, considered, and thoughtfully taken. One wonders if the result of this prescription could even be called dancing.

The idea of time as a continuous flow also has a Greek origin. The fragments of Heraclitus compare our experience of time to stepping into a stream. If we unpack this metaphor, we might ask: from whence do we step, when we step into a stream? If we are to think of our experience of time as a stream– when is it that we stand outside of time? We are always already standing in one stream or another.

Now let’s switch the channel and move back to the idea of “real time” and streaming time. Some streams move at a faster pace than others. This is undeniably true, but is the lazy river rolling along any less “real time” than the raging torrent of flood waters? Is the tightly packed schedule of the executive more “real time” that the couple taking a late summer afternoon off to eat strawberries and drink wine under the shade of a tree? Something that already flows doesn’t need to increase its tempo to achieve the appearance of a real time flow.

Perhaps we’re ready to think about the phrase “real time personal identity,” and what it might mean. Is there a moment when I’m logged out of my personal identity in daily life? As a social being, I have a use for three different modes of connection: the anonymous, the public and the private. The value of these modes seem to be independent of whether I’m on or off the Network in any given moment.

Thinking of on or off surfaces the question of the pervasive and ubiquitous Network. Is there ever a time when I’m logged out of the Network? Is there a moment when I have no presence whatsoever? To check on a person’s presence, I can Google them to see what’s visible on the Network according to Google’s index of things that are. My presence on the Network begins to have the character of an instant messenger status message. I’m there, I’m always there– I may just not be available to listen or to speak.

A reciprocal exchange of identity artifacts, a la Skype or IM, can establish a public and/or private channel. We subscribe to each other’s messages, and this subscription is persistent with different status settings. The status setting serves the function that space/place does in the physical world.

In a relationship within a continuous, real-time network– why would I need to log in more than once for the term of the relationship? When would I actually be logged out? My presence and my online presence might be the same.

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