Friday, May 26, 2006

Blogging = Stigmergy

To whom is this blog addressed? Everyone, no one?.. Yes.

Stigmergy is indirect communication, that is, communication which is not based on transmission to a specific receiver, but rather to a general audience (Paranak, 2002 - PDF). Not only is stigmergic communication indirect, but it is also many to many, which means not only is the stigmergic medium readable by 'everyone' but it is also writable by that same audience.

Well, blogs are indirect communication to be sure, but are they writable? Utilising the comment function makes them more so, and the fact that anyone with web access can start a blog for free in minutes, means they can respond to the blogosphere's stimuli with their own blog. Of course bloggers respond directly to other bloggers' posts with thoughts, ideas and information which is perhaps directed very specifically to another blogger, but, anyone else passing by can also read this post. This difference is highlighted by the distinction between a blog and an email - if two bloggers email responses to each other, then other bloggers and readers are left out of the conversation. This is not stigmergy.

I'll give a real-world example of stigmergic blogging in this very post.

Although I decided to write about this theme (blogging and stigmergy) independently, I nevertheless did a search and came up with a few others discussing the same issue on their blogs. Below is a beautiful (and well linked to) metaphor posted by Joe Gregorio describing what I'm doing right now:

"If this weren't on the web, what would be the closest analogy for what I am doing [blogging]? Writing my thoughts and ideas down on a chalkboard on a street corner is the closest I can come. Imaging a street with chalkboards mounted at random points along the thoroughfare. I write my stuff on my chalkboard. Other people have their own chalkboards on the same street. Sometimes I walk by their boards, read what they have to say and if I find it interesting then either I scribble a little note on their board (if their weblog has a comment system) otherwise I run back to my board and scribble a note about what I read 'over there' and what I think about it. If I find something interesting happening on the street I go back to my board and write about it. We never speak directly. We only communicate through the boards. Writing on our own boards, or scribbling even smaller notes on other peoples boards is the only way we converse."

What Joe described is exactly what I did by visiting his blog and writing about that visit on my blog. And just as he states, we have never exchanged words in any form of direct conversation, rather we have only communicated through our blogs - so far ;-).

If we are engaging in stigmergy via blogging, then how are gradients of the human equivalent of pheromones being generated? - pheromones being the means through which termites stigmergically communicate. Furthermore, what is the substance of these gradients? Information, reputation, network value? As stigmergy was originally coined with regard to the study of social insects, perhaps more research is required to adequately apply this term to human affairs. More on this in the soon to be released post "Human Stigmergy"...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Stigmergically collaborate on stigmergic collaboration

You are invited to to contribute to the open content version of the article Stigmergic Collaboration: The Evolution of Group Work.

The original, static HTML version of the article is here.

Defining Stigmergy Part 1

Something I keep coming back to is 'how far can/should the term stigmergy be extended?' The concept in general seems applicable to so much of human endeavour that I am concerned that without focusing, the term risks being watered down to the point of ineffectuality.

The original definition given by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in 1959 to refer to termite behaviour was: "Stimulation of workers by the performance they have achieved." From the broadest interpretation of this definition, culture itself seems to qualify as stigmergy - human workers modify our surroundings and in turn are stimulated to do more and better. However if one is to apply the term in a focused and useful manner, such a broad definition is no doubt problematic in that it leaves little scope for such distinctions as stigmergy on the internet vs. in culture etc. Never mind the fact that all organisms stimulate their brethren through the performance they have achieved at least in evolutionary terms.

So it should have come as no surprise after doing some hunting around that many researchers have addressed the issue of defining stigmergy. I discovered a nice little Power Point poster by Dylan Shell and Maja Matarić: On the use of the term ‘Stigmergy’ (.ppt). (Here's an HTML version, however it lacks all the references.) This poster shows that not only is the definition up for contest, with confusion over whether communication takes place indirectly or at all, but so is the term's etymology. Below are some variations on the terms origins (see the poster for references):

  • "‘stigma’ (goad) and ‘ergon’ (work)…” to “…stigmergy (stigma: Wound from a pointed object; ergon: Work, product of labour = stimulating product of labour).”
  • “from the Greek words stigma ‘sign’ and ergon ‘action,’ and captures the notion that an agent’s actions leave signs in the environment, signs that it and other agents sense and that determine their subsequent actions.”
  • “[F]rom the Greek stigma: sting, and ergon: work.”

Perhaps some of the more interesting research done with regards to stigmergic collaboration that is highlighted in the poster is the various categorisations thus far developed in research:

Holland and Melhuish [1999] define two subtypes:
Active: actions affect sensory inputs of others
Passive: actions affect the outcome of later actions

Bonabeau, et al. [1999], distinguish:
Qualitative: sensory inputs differ by type
Quantitative: sensory inputs differ by degree

Wilson [1975], draw the distinction between
Sematectonic: change in state result of task-related action
Sign-based: (or marker-based) result of something that makes no contribution to the task

As the authors of the poster point out, Grassé's original understanding of stigmergy then becomes further defined as: Active, Qualitative Sematectonic stigmergy - that's a mouthful. More on this in Part 2.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Some General Off-the-Cuff Reflections on Stigmergy

Below are some general thoughts inspired by Samuel Rose's response to my article, Stigmergic Collaboration.

* Agents of a stigmergic system don't communicate directly, but rather via the stigmergic medium. The nature of this communication would thus not be one of turn-taking conversation, but rather, “I encounter something in the system that provokes x response from me”. However turn-taking conversation would accompany such efforts: "hey Joe, check out my wiki... can you contribute x" etc, and of course discussion relating to contributions. (Have you ever watched ants when they meet each other on the trail? They almost always stop and touch antennas.)

* The local is the domain of the individual agent, while the system wide level likely to be beyond the individual's comprehension (or ability to conceptualize at any given moment). This resonates when thinking about the origins of stigmergy - how can a single termite know where to put a wee bit of mud so as to contribute to a fantastically complex structure - it doesn't, it just responds to its local conditions – a particular pheromone in an existing bit of mud elicits the response of ‘roll mud ball with x pheromone and deposit here’. Although a whole might be distributed beyond the reach of the individual (I know is already too much for me to know the ins and outs of all its corners), perhaps knowledge of the whole might be naturally broken up into chunks relating to user groups. - If you want to know about x, find the group that stigmergically develops and maintains x and ask them collectively. (An idea which might be worth better supporting in wikis etc – this could also feed Reed’s Law.)

* Filtering... hmm, seems like that is what stigmergy kind of does naturally. That is, when the local gets stigmergically encoded, a filtering process takes place before the encoding does - how do I know what I will encode? I will encode that which is the most meaningful for me in that context. Thus aggregated meaning must emit gradients of reputation which attracts more contributors. - Seems this might also be an area worth exploring: how to build the increase of positive feedback and attract more contributors into today's stigmergic collaboration systems.

* Intuitively I feel there is something big, complex and hairy lurking behind the combination of network theory (mathematical & social) and stigmergy. Perhaps this is humanity’s real contribution to the medium - not that swarm insects aren't social and networky, but let's face it, we have the internet ;-)

* Finally, as I paste all this jabber into my private wiki, I realized that stigmergy doesn’t have to be social, that is, the communication can be with oneself…

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ground Zero

This blog will serve as a locus for the working through of ideas related to the development of my research and understanding of stigmergic collaboration as originally outlined in my article, Stigmergic Collaboration: the evolution of group work. This is also likely to form the backbone of my PhD at the Centre for Ideas which is currently half completed (two-ish more years to go). I welcome any and all comments relevant to these posts and consider my work collaborative by nature. As such, another locus for the development of my research is at - a collaborative research project focusing on the development of collaborative research across disciplines with the long-term aims of producing a general theory of collaboration.

I consider the backdrop/context of my research to be that of 'cooperation studies', most notably developed by the CooperationCommons to which I contribute, however my research and orientation is decidedly transdisciplinary.

More to come soon…