Tuesday, October 16, 2007

PhD Completed!!!

Examined, bound and submitted - and what a good feeling it is!

I thought I might provide a general overview of my dissertation for those interested.

I was supervised by Elizabeth Presa, Sean Cubitt and Warren Burt and was examined by Howard Rheingold and Francis Heylighen. You can read the examination reports here.

Stigmergic Collaboration: A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration

Abstract (first paragraph)

'This thesis presents an application-oriented theoretical framework for generalised and specific collaborative contexts with a special focus on Internet-based mass collaboration. The proposed framework is informed by the author's many years of collaborative arts practice and the design, building and moderation of a number of online collaborative environments across a wide range of contexts and applications. The thesis provides transdisciplinary architecture for describing the underlying mechanisms that have enabled the emergence of mass collaboration and other activities associated with 'Web 2.0' by incorporating a collaboratively developed definition and general framework for collaboration and collective activity, as well as theories of swarm intelligence, stigmergy, and distributed cognition.' >> full abstract

The core insight of the thesis is that mass collaboration (Wikipedia, open source software, Second Life etc) enables a shift from social to cultural negotiation, shattering the traditional glass ceiling of collaborative participation from approximately 25 members maximum, towards hundreds of thousands and beyond.

Social negotiation is the means by which all traditional collaboration takes place and is characterised by turn-taking communication. In the case of mass collaboration, a digital workspace mediates participant interaction, providing stigmergic cues to negotiate contributions via the various literacies associated with digital technologies and the particular workspace's norms, languages and 'netiquette'. While this does not preclude turn-taking communication, it places the interactive focus on cultural information which serves as the first point of engagement.

In other words, the workspace acts as a boundary object that removes social barriers to participation in online contexts (establishing, negotiating and maintaining social relations with thousands of people) and streamlines the creative process through providing a single site of work to a theoretically infinite number of participants.

Many other themes and sub-frameworks contribute to the overall work such as
  • an in depth review of the state of stigmergy research and applications;
  • a original, general theory of collective activity;
  • an etymologically researched, cross-disciplinary, collaboratively informed definition of collaboration and the beginnings of a general theory of collaboration;
  • a framework for understanding indirect, mediated communication;
  • the documentation of a number of real-world projects which apply and test the findings of the thesis;
  • and of course, a framework for mass collaboration which integrates the above as well as preexisting frameworks and theories.

The dissertation may be downloaded from:

I would love to hear your opinions, so please feel free to comment!

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

PhD Is Done! (almost)

I got my examination reports back for my PhD thesis, Stigmergic Collaboration: A theoretical framework for mass collaboration, and the prognosis is good!

Both of my extraordinarily esteemed examiners, Howard Rheingold and Francis Heylighen, have recommended that I be awarded my doctorate without further amendment. I am ecstatic and honored to have received such positive reviews from two of my personal heroes of original thought and research.

In the coming weeks I will be reviving this blog and mirroring the content at mark-elliott.net as well. I'm thinking of doing a blog series on my thesis - breaking it into more bite size chunks with links into the larger work. However I need to give this a bit more thought first. In the mean time, please feel free to peruse the online version of my thesis here: http://mark-elliott.net/view/Dissertation

- The (almost) in the title is due to the fact that I still need to submit bound hard copies to the university, and well, I still have the formal ceremony before I can legitimately prefix my name with the good ole 'Dr' :-).

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Stigmergic Collaboration is moving house

I've moved this blog to http://mark-elliott.net/view/Blog

Here's an orientation message.

If you are only interested in my research activities (such as stigmergy and collaboration) you might want to focus on the material in the Research category: http://mark-elliott.net/view/Blog/Research

I'm working on a custom rss feed for the categories only, but alas, it has not yet happened. Untill then, I'm sorry but you'll have to filter the many posts about my baby twin boys! ;-).

I've got only 5 months to finish my PhD, so I'll be cranking up the stigmergy blogging in the next week or two...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Human Stigmergy Part 1

(An illegal tyre dump, near Newcastle, Australia estimated to hold over 10,000 tyres.)

As far as my explorations have uncovered, little to no research has been done on applying stigmergy to human activity and communication. There have been a few very brief mentions here and there, the most significant in some ways being by Theraulaz & Bonabeau in "A Breif History of Stigmergy" from Artificial Life journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 - Spring 1999, page 102:

Chemical trails that are produced by some ants species [10, 23] muleteer trail networks, and even dirt tracks and trail systems in man [31, 32] result from interactions of this kind.

[31 refers to Modelling the evolution of human trail systems, Dirk Hebling, Joachim Keltsch & Peter Molnar; while 32 refers to Active walker model for the formation of human and animal trail systems, Dirk Helbing, Frank Schweitzer, Joachim Keltsch, Péter Molnár]

Another excellent mention of human stigmergy, although less formal, is in the comment posted by Dylan Shell to Joe Gregorio's great blog post on stigmergy. Here he says:

Another example, perhaps just as old, and even more damaging in some cases, is the process with which people choose illegal dumping grounds. A necessary feature is some degree of seclusion, or at least shelter from the prying eyes of the law. However, we find that once a place has been chosen by some offender, their dump adds a stronger justification to others for that site.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Time in the desert

I just returned from a trip to the Northern Territory in Australia's outback where I had plenty of time to think about stigmergy. It will probably take a little time for my many thoughts to coalesce into something more articulate (I pondered a good deal on human stigmergy). In the mean time, there were many beautiful termite nests (above), and ant nests (below) to witness.

However I was there as part of an IBM sponsored program, SWIRL program run by Lawry Mahon (a living legend IMHO).

(left to right) Andrew Hocking - Corporate Community Relations Manager, IBM Australia, and Lawry Mahon - SWIRL Program Coordinator, Victoria University School of Education

We visited five different indigenous communities in which groups of student teachers were developing digital stories with young indigenous students.

My role was/is to help develop an online (stigmergic) collaborative environment for this course. Having run now for 11 years without hitch and with a great many success stories, I'm hoping this wonderful bunch of people and fantastic program will provide an excellent environment for exploring stigmergic collaboration across geographic, political and cultural borders.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Schools of babbling disembodied AIBOs surfing the web waves

In an article on Embodied and Communicating Agents, this paragraph:

"...like children, the [Sony] AIBOs initially started babbling aimlessly until two or more settled on a sound to describe an object or aspect of their environment, gradually building a lexicon and grammatical rules through which to communicate."

...made me wonder what would happen if such learning and communicating agents were disembodied and distributed throughout the web.

Schooling web-bots communicating about 'objects' they discover and interact with on the net might help understand and navigate the web in ways that could harness the intelligence of evolutionary computing and provide a swarms-eye, multi-dimensional view of the state of the global electronic stigmergic substrate.

Perhaps the researchers are alluding to this when they said:

"The results of the project might trigger significant breakthroughs in many future and emergent technologies, from self-developing robots to the semantic web and ubiquitous wireless devices."

...or maybe I'm just imagining things. Anyway this is just plain funny (if not suggestively metaphorical some how) - movie of a real dog attacking a robot dog.

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.