Stigmergy and ant colonies
In this post I will explain one of the important themes of this quest. It is called stigmergy. In the previous post I already mentioned the term briefly. Stigmergy is derived from the Greek words stigma, which means a mark or sign, and ergon, which means work or action. The term is not used broadly, but is strongly related to self-organization and social beings. According to Wikipedia, stigmergy means the following (accessed July 6th, 2009):
Stigmergy is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, apparently intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even awareness of each other.
Ok, let’s start at the beginning of the definition. First, it is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions. This happens for example by social insects such as ants. They exchange information by laying down pheromones. These are the traces they leave in the environment, and stimulates a subsequent action. Other social insects that use stigmergy are termites. They roll mud balls impregnated with pheromones, cuing others to roll further mudballs which leads to sophisticated arches and ventilation systems. Coordination is indirect, because they act only on changes in the environment. The ants self-organize, because there are no formal agreements beforehand. They just act spontaneously on changes in the system.
More generally put, the stigmergic system consists of primarily two components, a collection of agents, and the environment in which they interact. Through the agents’ modification of this environment by physical manipulation or encoding signs directly into or upon it, the environment plays the role of medium for a message which acts as a cue, stimulating further actions from agents (Elliott, 2007). This definition of Elliott is more useful for this quest. When we speak of online collaborative spaces, the Internet plays the role of the environment, and a collection of people modify the environment and interact on other modifications. The best known example of this form of stigmergy is the development of Wikipedia. People start and edit topics on Wikipedia, and others enhance them or start new related topics, which are enhanced by others, and so on. Millions of people are involved. This type of stigmergy is also known as digital stigmergy, stigmergic behaviour that emerges when humans work within digital environments.
Stigmergic behaviour works better when more agents are involved. Today, the Internet acts as a networked environment where many agents can interact, be it direct or indirect. This network of interconnected people can be compared to ant colonies in some way. Nobody is in control of the environment, and its knowledge and intelligence are distributed over all its components. This is also known as collective intelligence (Heylighen, 1999).
To return to the Wikipedia example, it shows the power of stigmergy. The availability of the medium makes it possible for interdependent agents to perform activities that are beneficial to all, minimizing social frictions and stimulating synergy, without a need for a hierarchical control or coordination, a clear plan, or even any direct communication between the agents (Heylighen, 2007). Wikipedia is the best known example, but still just an example. Many more applications exist and will be developed. My question is, should we take stigmergy more into account when designing social software?
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