Stigmergy

Kind people have stigmergically translated this article into German, French, and Spanish.

This article is part of a series: ‘Stigmergy: Systems of Mass Collaboration’.

Stigmergy is a mechanism of indirect coordination between agents or actions. The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. In that way, subsequent actions tend to reinforce and build on each other, leading to the spontaneous emergence of coherent, apparently systematic activity. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, seemingly intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even direct communication between the agents. – Wikipedia

A personality based system can never allow for mass collaboration on a global scale without representation such as that seen in organizations like the United Nations. If the world is to move away from representation and allow all voices to be heard, we need to find methods of collaboration which work with idea and action based systems. Concentric user groups with epistemic communities and knowledge bridges may work for idea based systems; for action, stigmergy may be the best option.

Currently, the typical response to a situation which requires an action is to create a noun, in the form of a committee, commission, organization, corporation, ngo, government body, etc. Far too often, the action never appears at all as the focus is always on the organization and the personalities involved instead.

Most systems are now run by competitive organizations. Competition creates redundancy, is slow and wastes resources on idea protection, advertisement, and more. Competition also requires secrecy which blocks progress and auditing and causes lost opportunities and ideas. Patents and copyrights further limit speed and the potential for mass input of ideas. Collaboration between the people with the greatest expertise does not happen unless they are hired by the same project.

The alternative to competition has traditionally been cooperation. This is most effective only in groups of two to eight people. For groups larger than 25, cooperation is agonizingly slow, an exercise in personality management which quickly degenerates into endless discussion and soothing of ruffled feathers, is extremely vulnerable to agent provocateurs, and in large scale groups very seldom accomplishes anything of value. Cooperation traditionally operates on the democratic principle that all voices are equal, so it does not allow for leaders, or users with greater expertise, energy or understanding to have greater influence than those on the periphery. Cooperation wastes a great deal of time and resources in both discussing and discussing the discussions. In an action based system, this discussion is rarely required as the opinion of those not doing the work is probably of little value unless it is solicited advice from a trusted knowledgeable party.

Cooperation and consensus based systems are usually dominated by extroverted personalities who make decisions to control the work of others and are justly resented by those doing the actual work. Most workers do not enjoy a hierarchical system as shown in the chart below, as they lose autonomy, mastery and creative control over their own work; the feeling at the bottom is no different whether there is a horizontal or a hierarchical structure making the decisions. Cooperative systems frequently use consensus or votes to make decisions for the entire group; these methods may not produce the best results as many people may not understand the work if they are not actually doing it, and they may demand things they would never be willing to do themselves. Consensus based systems are also prone to the ‘hive mind’ appropriation of credit for individual ideas and labour which causes further resentment.

Hierarchical System

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 5.35.06 PM

Consensus Hierarchy

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 5.35.28 PM

In the Stigmergy chart below, all workers have full autonomy to create as they wish; the power of the user group is in the ability to accept or reject the work. Since there is no officially designated person to perform a task the users are free to create alternatives if they do not like what they are offered. Workers are free to create regardless of acceptance or rejection; in the chart below some work may be accepted by the largest group, some alternatives for a different user group, some only by a small group, and sometimes the worker will be alone with their vision. In all cases the worker is still free to create as they wish. History has shown no drastically innovative ideas that received instant mainstream acceptance and history also shows that radically new ideas are most often the result of solitary vision; to leave control of work to group consensus only is to cripple innovation.

Stigmergy

Stigmergy chart

In a competitive environment, a new idea is jealously guarded, legally protected and shrouded in secrecy. Great effort is expended in finding supporters for the idea while also ensuring that the idea remains covered by legal protections such as non-disclosure agreements. The idea remains inextricably bound to the creator until it is legally transferred to another owner and all contributors work for the owner, not the idea. Contributors must then be rewarded by the owner which further limits the potential for development and wastes more resources in legal agreements, lawsuits, etc. Contributors have no interest in whether the project succeeds or fails and no motivation to contribute more than they are rewarded for.

If the idea is instead developed cooperatively, it must first be pitched by the originator, who will attempt to persuade a group to adopt the idea. The group must be in agreement with the idea itself and with every stage of its development. The majority of energy and resources are spent on communication, persuasion, and personality management, and the working environment is fraught with arguments and power struggles. Because the project is driven by a group, albeit a cooperative one, the group is still competitive with other similar outside projects, and still wastes resources and energy on secrecy, competitive evangelizing, etc. Both competitive and cooperative projects will die if the group that runs the project leaves and both will attract or repel contributors based on the personalities of the existing group. Both are hierarchical systems where individuals need to seek permission to contribute. Both focus on the authority of personalities to approve a decision instead of focusing on the idea or action itself.

Stigmergy is neither competitive nor traditionally collaborative.

With stigmergy, an initial idea is freely given, and the project is driven by the idea, not by a personality or group of personalities. No individual needs permission (competitive) or consensus (cooperative) to propose an idea or initiate a project. There is no need to discuss or vote on the idea, if an idea is exciting or necessary it will attract interest. The interest attracted will be from people actively involved in the system and willing to put effort into carrying the project further, not empty votes from people with little interest or involvement. Since the project is supported or rejected based on contributed effort, not empty votes, input from people with more commitment to the idea will have greater weight. Stigmergy also puts individuals in control over their own work, they do not need group permission to tell them what system to work on or what part to contribute.

The person with the initial idea may or may not carry the task further. Evangelizing the idea is voluntary, by a group that is excited by the idea; they may or may not be the ones to carry it out. It is unnecessary to seek start up funding and supporters; if an idea is good it will receive the support required. (In practice, that is not true yet, as few people have the free time to put into volunteer projects because most are tied to compulsory work under the existing financial system. Additionally, we still live in a personality driven system where only powerful personalities are heard.) Secrecy and competition is unnecessary because once an idea is given, it and all new development belongs to anyone who chooses to work on it. Anyone can submit work for approval, the idea cannot die or be put on hold by personalities; acceptance or rejection is for the work contributed, not the person contributing it. All ideas are accepted or rejected based on the needs of the system.

Responsibility and rights for the system rest with the entire user group, not just the creators. There is no need for people to leave the system based on personality conflicts as there is no need for communication outside of task completion and there are usually plenty of jobs with complete autonomy. As no one owns the system, there is no need for a competing group to be started to change ownership to a different group.

Stigmergy provides little scope for agent provocateurs as only the needs of the system are considered. Anyone working against the system’s functionality is much easier to see and prevent than someone blocking progress with endless discussion and creation of personality conflicts. Because the system is owned by all, there is also no one leader to target.

Nodes

As work progresses and core team and members grow, more interested and dedicated personalities emerge which begin to steer direction. Specialties are formed around the core team’s interests as the core team produces the most work and the work most valued by the rest of the user group. Systems beyond a certain level of complexity begin to lack coherence as the group’s energy and focus moves from broad to narrow, following the interests of the core team and the availability of resources; parts of the original system may be left undone.

As more members are added, more will experience frustration at limited usefulness or autonomy. Some of these members will have an interest in the work left undone and they will create a new node of like minded members and new people to take care of the undone work. Alternatively, casual users and observers of the system, who lack the desire or expertise to be a more active part of the original system, will see a different need created and start a new node. Rather than the traditional corporate model of endless acquisition and expansion, stigmergy encourages splintering into different nodes. Because each individual is responsible only for their own work, and no one can direct a group of workers, expansion means more work for the individual, a self limiting prospect. As a system grows, the additional work requires either additional resources or splintering; as communication is easier and there is more autonomy in smaller groups, splintering is the more likely outcome of growth.

Communication between nodes of a system is on an as needed basis. Transparency allows information to travel freely between the various nodes, but a formal relationship or communication method is neither necessary nor desirable. Information sharing is driven by the information, not personal relationships. If data is relevant to several nodes it will be immediately transmitted to all, no formal meetings between official personalities are necessary.

Any node can disappear without affecting the network, and the remaining necessary functionality of that node can be taken up by others. Nodes which find they are performing the same tasks will likely join, or one will be rendered obsolete by lack of use. New nodes are only created to fulfill a new need or provide greater functionality; it is inefficient to have the same task performed twice, and that only occurs if a second group discovers an alternative method that the first group is unwilling to adopt. In that case, the best system will win the most support from the user group, the other will die or remain as a valued alternative. Any user can contribute to the node which best matches their interests and abilities, or contribute to multiple nodes.

The future

A new system of governance or collaboration that does not follow a competitive hierarchical model will need to employ stigmergy in most of its action based systems. It is neither reasonable nor desirable for individual thought and action to be subjugated to group consensus in matters which do not affect the group, and it is frankly impossible to accomplish complex tasks if every decision must be presented for approval; that is the biggest weakness of the hierarchical model. The incredible success of so many internet projects are the result of stigmergy, not cooperation, and it is stigmergy that will help us build quickly, efficiently and produce results far better than any of us can foresee at the outset.

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53 thoughts on “Stigmergy

  1. Thought provoking, but I need more time to digest the implications be they positive or negative. Well done I enjoy reading your writings.

  2. Thanks. The biggest limitation I can see is the financial system, all of our alternatives at the moment are coercive because of the current financial model. I haven’t written that part yet. Also, we of course need a different model for idea based systems such as law and research, coming next. Thank you very much for your feedback again.

  3. georgie, you are for me at least, a genius, you could write a good book just with the content of this blog, keep up the awsome work, its really inspiring.

    too sad the world just cares about justin bieber’s vagina.

  4. Thank you so much ilcharlie, I really appreciate the feedback as I have a lot to write and no time to do it … knowing someone is reading to the end is motivating! I am about half way through the collaboration articles, I can ebook them when done if anyone wants them that way. But any suggestions for easier formats for people are welcome.

  5. Thanks for posting this – I’ve been thinking along similar lines myself, but I wasn’t aware of this concept. However, on first glance, I’m not sure pure stigmergy has everything we need for the organizations of the future.

    Stigmergy seems to be appropriate to situations where individuals are very empowered, especially by technology. In such situations, ideas can be converted into a valuable asset very easily (through automation or other labor saving methods), so exploring the vast space of ideas, and recombining them, is more important than constraining the focus of the group. This is why you see this pattern recur time after time among technologists, particularly in software. To some extent stigmergy works for protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, as well – the vast space of protest tactics is explored in parallel, and a successful idea is rapidly copied across the globe.

    However, such ideas can never involve managing large resources – the cost of implementation has to be borne by individuals or small groups. The technologist can download all the assets needed to use or improve software, given the modest cost of a laptop and internet connectivity. OSW had more physical assets to manage, which explains why it was built out of tents and photocopied signs – this is what an individual can bring to the organization. But that also meant that tactics could spread with lightning speed.

    When it came to the bigger coarse-grained questions OSW switched to an extreme consensus driven model, which failed for the reasons you specify. Consensus fails to deliver timely or well-considered results when broadened too far, so little secret oligarchies develop, and then the cohesion of the group is also threatened. Similarly, the few formal organizations that sprout up around open source software tend to become unaccountable. People in the central organization may be trying very hard to do the right thing, but the greater stigmergic mass can’t give formal assent to what it does nor does it ever come to terms with the harsher, real-world, time-limited choices the central organization has to make.

    This why I think some form of representation has to be included in a model for future organizations. Representation is two-way; the group is represented to a central decision process, but the representatives also are there to explain central decisions to the group. Cooperation does work in smaller groups, so the answer may be to allow small collaborative groups to self-organize into larger trees. We have a great opportunity to do so via software and communication technology, which will make managing such complex organizations more possible. This sounds a little like the Pirate Party’s liquid democracy platform, which I need to learn more about, but from what I know of it I think their model can also be improved… but that’s another essay in itself and I’ve already taken up a lot of your time with this comment.

  6. But it’s a great comment, thank you.

    I am not advocating stigmergy as a one stop solution for all occasions, I am about half way through the articles I need to write here: one to come is about consensus, still very important in dealing with the neighbours, etc, and one (next to be written) is about managing expertise hierarchies which are still also needed. Re liquid democracy, my response is here.

    I’m sorry for presenting this in bits and pieces, unfortunately money is still the master in our world and I find minutes to write when I can. The next article is essential to explain part of this, I will try to get it out. Your thoughts are very appreciated.

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  11. Great piece, Georgie! Your article is a cool trace left in the environment stimulating me to translate it into german. However, the restrictive license (CC-by-nc-nd) you choose prevents it. So, first I like to ask for permission to translate the article, and second I encourage you to switch to a free license like CC-by-sa to enable stigmergic sharing and collaboration. Thank you for consideration :-)

  12. Thank you for the interesting piece; a great work of clarification (and great graphics).
    Stigmergy as way of coordination and co-creation seems indeed to carry an outstanding potential in tackling and actuating solutions to complex problems, which is no less than operating in a more intelligent fashion on the overall.

    I believe your comment in parenthesis concerning the actuation of stigmergy: “In practice, that is not true yet, as few people have the free time to put into volunteer projects because most are tied to compulsory work under the existing financial system. Additionally, we still live in a personality driven system where only powerful personalities are heard.” is still very influential and undermining success of open projects. Alternative solutions to this set of conditions and the wave of initiatives harvesting connectivity to reformulate the concept & practice of individual productivity are a critical part in generating the relevant medium for stigmergy.
    Working on similar lines, though from a different background (design of complex systems). Looking forward to your coming pieces. Saw you mentioned a possible writing on consensus, I’ll mention a post I wrote in case you may find it useful ‘the evolution of consensus’ it is here: http://spacecollective.org/starwalker

    • Thanks, I have bookmarked your article. Yes, living between two systems is obnoxious, but I agree with “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Difficult but necessary, it is impossible to explain some things without working examples.

  13. I am really stunned at the quality of your thinking Georgie. For over a year now, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about new forms of collaboration, governance, decision-making etc and this blog is like a quantum leap beyond the vast majority of all of it. Keep it up! I look forward to getting my brain up to speed and having something useful to contribute in the future :)

    Cheers,
    Rich
    http://loomio.org

    • Thank you very much for the feedback, and thank you for reading. It is frustrating not having time to write faster, but hopefully I will finish soon and we can have a more complete discussion. Looking forward to your thoughts.

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  16. This article is part of a series: ‘Governance and other systems of mass collaboration’. Systems are discussed in ‘Governance by user groups’ “User groups are seldom simply entire nations and there are users of differing levels of involvement in each system. International systems would include things such as the internet, telecommunications and knowledge, local systems would include things such as transit, food production and social services”. ‘System’ as I use it is really the same as the word definition. Usually in governance systems are divided into ministries, departments, etc.

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  37. What would you say to someone asking you what’s the difference between this and other “leftist utopias”? How would you convince pretty much the rest of the world? What are the keys aspects of it and why would it be better or less worse for them? How could this solve specific world problems? And what makes this special?

    • I would say:
      other “leftist utopias”: this is current reality.
      How would you convince: not my job.
      key aspects of it and why would it be better or less worse for them: see article.
      How could this solve specific world problems: it would allow mass collaboration in action based systems.
      what makes this special: it is the way we already work.

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