Thursday, August 21, 2003

Stigmergy

I learned a new word today, stigmergy. Coined by French biologist (or as we say these days, "freedom biologist") Pierre-Paul Grasse, it refers to the strategy followed by some animals of communicating in a way intermediated by the environment. The canonical example is how ants communicate; not by directly waving their antennae at each other, but by leaving a trail of pheromones in the environment. Other ants, finding those molecules, gain information about what the other ants are doing.

Judging from the hits on Google, other people have already discovered this term and applied it to the Web, blogs, Google, trackback, and whatnot. I'd like to try to examine it in a broader context, though, in a much closer analogy (or perhaps literal interpretation) of what ants do.

Stigmergy is different from the communications we're used to. For the vast majority of human existance, communications was highly localized in time and space: a live conversation with another person. The invention of writing, at first associated with megalithic construction, broke the time axis, but was restricted to a very few individuals. In the last century, technologies have appeared that have broken the space axis as well; we can have time-local but non-space-local conversations via the phone, or IM. Added to this confusion are the questions of whether a communication was addressed to a specific recipient, was persistent, or perceivable by others.

Given the coming smart environment, true stigmergic communications are possible. We can leave messages in a location with our location-sensitive palmtop; where the message is physically stored is irrelevant. What's important is that later visitors could read our ant trail. Here, we'd see communications highly space-local, that is, tied to and perhaps only visible in a specific location. But it would be very non-time-local; it would be visible at any time after its initial creation. In some sense, what it's most similar to in human experience is the ancient stone monoliths, carved with hieroglyphs: "Here lies Sun-born Thutmosis, Beloved of Re, Lord of the Two Lands." But this new communications pattern (which must, I admit, get a different name first) would be available to anyone, filterable by software, and attached to any kind of location, even if there isn't a great tomb there.

The invention of writing, the printing press, the telephone, email; all presaged fundamental changes in social patterns. When we are as ants, what manner of anthills will we build?