Sunday, June 25, 2006

Stigmergy, Institutions, Law, & Cooperation Part 1: The Panopticon

Reading the article, Pentagon Sets Its Sights on Social Networking Websites,

"New Scientist has discovered that Pentagon's National Security Agency, which specialises in eavesdropping and code-breaking, is funding research into the mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks."

by Paul Marks prompted me to review the notion of the panopticon within the contexts of stigmergy. This will no doubt require a number of visits (hence 'Part 1').

First proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century, a panopticon is a building that allows an observer to observe all the occupants without them being able to tell if they are being observed. Although the design did not bear fruit during Bentham's lifetime, the panopticon (originally designed to create self-monitoring in prisoner communities) did receive important analysis by Michel Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish. Foucault theorised that the evolution of all forms of institution required a specific type of discipline that observes without excessive force, and based upon these observations, shapes the subject into the correct form for the institution doing the observation. He further reasons that this specific type of discipline was exemplified by Bentham's Panopticon.

Howard Rheingold picked up this theme in his book, Smart Mobs, under the chapter, Always-On Panopticon...or Cooperation Amplifier. He explores the ways in which pervasive, networked communications and infrastructure can contribute towards the emergence of novel modes and means of cooperation, or/and provide the framework towards and 'always-on panopticon', even perhaps more far reaching in its applications than Foucault even suspected. You can read many interesting blogs relating to this theme here.

So, how does stigmergy increase or decrease the ability for panopticonic discipline, and is this good or bad? Well... structured social information always enables our collective capacity create or exploit patterned (recurring) behavior through the spontaneous generation of values, beliefs and norms, which are generally reflected through a society's institutions and laws. Whether in a hunter gatherer tribe in Western Australia, or at the International Court of Justice, institutions make laws which require enforcement by institutions. This dynamic forms a recursive relationship which not only dictates when you can turn right on a red, but who, when, where, how and why people can and can't work, sleep, socialize and stigmergically cooperate with one another.

In the contexts of the tripartite stigmergic organisation of agent-environment-superorganism, the environment (nest) becomes the medium for information encoding by the individual agents (ants) to be interpreted by the superorganism (hive). Of course we are still unsure of the role of the superorganism with respects to humanity (and hives), regardless, the theory remains useful when considering the web, wiki or social network sites. The very fact that information is being stigmergically encoded allows the superorganism (collections of people) the possibility and probability to both create and exploit that information through patterned behavior and the creation of institutions, laws and cooperation.

As we all know, cooperation can work for the 'dark side' as much as for good, as can institutions and laws and well... just about anything subjected to the human will. The fact that global stigmergy may be emerging as a primary driver for the evolution of collaboration, cooperation and humanity in general, should be a cue to us all that both the good, the bad (and the beautiful) may become increasingly powerful as their ability to spontaneously generate new institutions, laws and cooperation is amplified.

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