Ants and anti-ants

In the “emergent democracy” happening, several participants drew analogies between emergent human behavior, like building cities, and the emergent behavior of social animals, like building ant colonies.
Several of us, include me, were vehemently opposed to drawing the analogy between humans and ants to closely.
Liz Lawley discusses this in her blog:

Key among [the concepts we discussed] was the rallying cry among several participants that “We are not ants!”
What does that mean? Well, we were discussing Steven Johnson’s book Emergence, in which he discusses the emergent behavior/intelligence in environments like ant colonies. The problem, several of us noted, is that ants do not have much self-awareness, while people do.

Here’s the expansion of the anti-ant position the I posted as a comment to Liz’ blog:

Liz, I was one of the anti-ant people.
The relevant distinction, I think, isn’t just that people have self-awareness. Consciousness is the starting point that makes human actions and decisions more complicated than those of ants.
The atoms of ant action are simple: pick up crumb, bring crumb to ant colony.
The atoms of human action are more complicated: identify people and groups interested in opposing Total Information Act, encourage people to persuade local congressperson.
The atoms of ant decisions are simple. Crumb smells like food. Pick up and bring to ant colony. Crumb smells like poison. Do not bring to ant colony.
The atoms of human decisions are more complicated. Safety doesn’t just mean avoiding crumb that smells like poison. Safety requires decisions in complex areas like “police work” and “diplomacy”.
Ants organize based on instinct and pheremones. Humans organize based on instinct and pheremones overlaid by complex cultural systems.
Organization tools that assume people are like ants will provide people tools to take very simple actions — vote yes or no on a question that someone else has articulated.
A politics that assumes people are like ants is likely to be totalitarian — manipulating people using instincts like greed and fear.
I think that any theory and support system for emergent human system needs to take into account the intelligence and complex behavior of the nodes in the network.

Haggadah online

Marc Canter writes that for the last three years, he’s been composing and using an online haggadah for his family’s seder.

I vowed that no more trees were going to get cut down for Passover. You see I was raised a secular Jew and Passover was the only holiday we really celebrated… So despite the assimilation the rest of the year – Springtime was always the time to be Jewish. This meant that the first night we ate as an extended family and the second night we always attended our community seder – put on by the South Side School of Jewish studies in Chicago – our ‘religous
Since it was the 60’s – we added she with the he’s, talked about Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement along with the Warsaw Ghetto and in general celebrtated revolutionaries throughout the ages. The tradition of adding to and changing the seder was predominant.
So when it came to my own seder 20 years later – here’s what I realized: I helped give birth to the multimedia world and I was gonna put my Matzah where my mouth is……but when we assembled all these PCs around the table, guess what? Nobody could keep in sync with each other! So we had to devise a way for us all to stay together and enable remote access to the seder. This evolved into a truly on-line version……

Collaborative, hyperlinked media are contemporary instantiations of the traditional genres, which are based on conversation and the interpretation of referenced texts. Discussion groups and hyperlinks, in other words.

Emergent Democracy

I participated last Friday in a “happening” organized by Joi Ito on Emergent Democracy.
The “happening” was an international phone call supported by simultaneous live chat and wiki-based project space. Ross Mayfield wrote a great colophon about how we used the tools.
The simultaneous chat reduced the stress of a long-distance teleconference, and enabled a higher-bandwidth discussion. We’re using the wiki to store references and to be a persistent project space going forward.
The conversation had two main themes:
* ideas about how emergent democracy could work
* creating tools to facilitate emergent democracy.
Pete Kaminski eloquently summarizes the key conversational threads:
* what are/are there architectural rules for emergent group-forming?
* how does weak tie/strong tie connectivity create emergent intelligence?
* learn from town meetings, mass media, talk radio, blogspace
* need to have local goals, but scalability as goals slide around themselves
There’s a version of the discussion that I find exciting and promising, and a version that I find troubling and less credible.
I’m excited to experiment with tools and techniques to help groups form, to amplify the signals from distributed groups, and to help groups move from discussion to action.
I’m a lot more wary about approaches that assume that political action will somehow “emerge naturally” from distributed groups of individual actors, in the same way that flocks of birds emerge naturally from simple behaviors to follow at a given distance and preserve line of sight, and termite mounds emerge naturally from termites dropping the next grain of sand near where they stumbled onto a grain of sand on the ground.
Human governing behaviors at the level of complexity required to implement systems like coalitions and policies and constitutions don’t happen automatically. People make them happen.
Networking tools and technologies can lower the activation threshold for starting groups, taking action, and combining into larger groups of influence.
Emergent Democracy won’t happen unless we — the node in the network — take delibrate steps to organize and make it happen.
The project space for follow-on work is here.

New startup!

As you might have guessed from the topics of conversation, I’ve been working on a start-up in the social software space. There’s a tremendous amount of innovation in the public internet, using tools like weblogs and wikis. We’re bringing these to corporations behind the firewall.
The pattern of adoption feels like the early PC era — champions discover a new set of simple tools bring them to the workplace, under the radar of central IT and corporate purchasing.
The first version of the SocialText website is here.
The team is fantastic — some folks I’ve admired for years — smart, competent, experienced, nice people. The group is distributed — Ross and Pete in the Bay Area, Ed in Ann Arbor, and sometimes Greg in NY.
We stay in touch by phone, email, and IM, and collaborate largely by wiki, which is egregiously fun. It feels like improvising together on a whiteboard, except you’re not in the same place at the same time, you have a document draft when you’re done, and you’re building a knowledgebase as you go.
If you have any questions, feel free to send me an email (contact info in sidebar at right), and I’ll be happy to tell you more about it.

Password implants

In recent months, I’ve gotten involved in a number of interesting and exciting projects.
Trouble is, they all involve sets of logins and passwords. Some have assigned logins and passwords, so I can’t use the usual combinations. Even before the new set of projects, my standard procedure for infrequently-used services had degenerated into to using the hint and getting a new password every single time!
I have completely scaled out of the creaky password management methods I’ve had till now.
I need a forearm-based implant that stores all my passwords, so I have them with me, whether or not I have access to any particular computing device.
Or maybe something a little less extreme.
How about a bracelet, with an LCD readout and a scroll-wheel that you can use to select System:Username:Password combinations?
There could be fashionable versions (precious metals, licensed characters). There could be simple versions, like medical alert tags, that guys could feel comfortable with.
Anybody know a good cyborgification service. Or a designer and contract manufacturer?
Or a better idea for managing more passwords than my simple brain can hold?


From Mitch Ratcliffe’s Travel Blog.

A friend with FBI sources tells me that the Bureau is planning to round up every Iraqi in the U.S. in the next two weeks or so.

…When you add the proposed Patriot Act extensions being lobbied for by Attorney General John Ashcroft, we’ve basically bid farewell to the country we and our ancestors lived in for the past 200 years.

Group-forming and democracy II

Seb questions the purity of group-forming from weblogs, since in the cases of successful groups, there were already interested, committed potential leaders.

Groups with a sense of identity do form visibly chiefly through blog interaction. Witness for instance the recent formation of such entities as the group-forming community, Austin bloggers, EdBloggers, the Emergent Knowledge Management Research group, protest blogs in Venezuela, and the copyright term action reform group. However, I’m not sure that these could qualify as pure examples of emergence, because in each case, there are individuals who have crystallized a vision, assumed a leadership role, and made it happen through purposeful design. But it could be argued that something had already emerged before those visions occured to them.

1) Catalysis. A catalyst doesn’t create the reagents itself. It simply lowers the energy required for the reaction, and makes the reaction happen faster and more often.
2) Humans, not ants. This isn’t a pure “emergent system” where the pattern is created by giving a simple rule to a simple bot.
Sure, all of the groups Seb mentioned bring together people who already had plans and skills. The question is, how likely would they have been to find each other; how quickly would they have been to organize without these tools.
If weblogs can catalyze group-forming among people who were well-intentioned but disconnected, that’s a big and welcome change.

Group-forming and democracy

Joi Ito convened a “happening” today — a conference call to discuss the emergent behavior of weblogs and how they could impact democracy.
Today, weblogs are limited as vehicles of political expression. People say their piece. Others comment. Maybe the mainstream media picks up on an otherwise ignored story (“Trent Lott”).
But it’s just talk. There’s no link between talk and action.
We need to add those links.
* People who meet through reading and commenting on blogs should have easier ways to make stronger ties. At a distance, through conference calls and synchronous chats, and in person, with face-to-face meeting.
* The LazyWeb is already spawning realworld collaborative projects like Austin Bloggers and the Blogmapping project. It should be easy to go from a brainstorming session to a persistent workspace.
* MoveOn makes it easy to read about a political topic, and then, with one click, make a donation or write a letter. This works for a centralized organization like MoveOn — these tools should be available for emergent groups in blogspace too.

In a TV age, most of us have forgotten how to organize. The religious right meets in churches every Sunday, and organizes political activity from there.
The rest of us have little or no common space to get together. We’ve forgotten how to influence society outside our living rooms and workplaces. We’ve given up, since the political conversation is mean-spirited shouting, and the system is owned by the rich and powerful.
While the world lurches toward what might turn into WW3, we’re drugged and sleeping.
It would be great to use blogging and other online tools to help us wake up and do something about it.

Where leadership comes from

I’m late in responding, but I love what Mitch Ratcliffe blogged on the topic, here:
“…we only recognize leaders in retrospect….Rosa Parks was a person who just got tired of the way thing were, the injustice she and her people experienced every day. And all she did was refuse to comply with the injustice and viola, she was a leader.”
There’s that, and there’s more. Reading the autobiography of Nelson Mandela… there were many people involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Mandela started as a lawyer and politican among many others in the movement.
What struck me about the book is the prodigious amount of care and thought Mandela took to think about the messages and tactics he was trying to communicate, and the effort to connect with the interests and cares of the different individuals and groups he was talking with. It makes for long and rather tedious sections of the book as Mandela creates and delivers and revises speeches, year after year. It’s like listening to Yo Yo Ma practicing five hours a day.
Following Mitch’s point, leaders emerge from a community, and they become leaders through the hard work of organizing and communicating with others.
Television seems to change the picture. Television seems to anoint a leader — someone with a firm gaze and a strong jaw who says simple things over an over again to arbitrary questions.
TV skills are important in a TV age, but we need people who have the first kind of leadership, sparked by a desire to change the situation, and honed by very deliberate hard work and practice.