One of the founding myths of internet culture, and particularly web culture, is the principle of stigmergy.
This will sound weird, but stigmergy is about ant behavior. Basically, ants do various things to try to accomplish objectives (e.g. get food to nest) but rather than a command and control structure to coordinate they use pheromones, or something like pheromones. (My new goal is to write shorter, quicker blog posts this year, and that means not spiraling into my usually obsession with precision. So let’s just say something like pheromones. Maybe actually pheromones. You get the point.)
So, for example, ants wander all over, and they are leaving maybe one scent, but they go and find the Pringle crumbs and as they come back with the food they leave another scent. A little scent trail. And then other ants looking for Pringles stumble over that scent trail and they follow it to the Pringle crumbs. And then all those ants leave a scent as they come back with their Pringle crumbs, and what happens over time is the most productive paths have the best and strongest smell.
If you think this smells very E. O. Wilson, it is. But it’s not just E. O. Wilson. This stuff was everywhere in the 1990s. Take “desire paths”, which was a metaphor I first heard when I landed in the middle of the dot com explosion. The story goes some university somewhere doesn’t build paths when they first put up the buildings. Instead, they wait for the first snow, and see where the tracks between the buildings come out. And where the tracks fall they put the paths. Another one talked about the worness of objects as an indicator. And in my first meeting with a MediaLab grad in 1999 (who’d been hired as a consultant for the educational software company I worked for) he described to me his major project: Patina, a web site whose pages showed visible signs of wear they more they were read.
This stuff was everywhere in the 1990s, and when Web 2.0 came around it was the founding mythology. I swear, unless you were around then, you have no idea how this cluster of metaphors formed the thinking of Silicon Valley. You really don’t.
And like a lot of mythologies, there’s a lot of truth to it. When I say myth, I don’t mean it’s wrong. It’s a good way to think about a lot of things. I have built (and will continue to build) a lot of projects around these principles.
But it’s also a real hindrance when we talk about disinfo and bad actors. Because the general idea in the Stigmergic Myth is that uncoordinated individual action is capable of expressing a representative collective consciousness. And in that case all we have to do is set up a system of signals that truly capture that collective or consensus intent.
But none of the founding myths — ants and Pringles, Swedish college desire paths, or even Galton’s ox weighing — deal with opposing, foundational interests. And opposing interests change everything. There isn’t a collective will or consciousness to express.
Faced with this issue, Web 2.0 doubled down. The real issue was the signals were getting hacked. And that’s absolutely true. There was a lot of counterfeit pheromone about, and getting rid of that was crucial. Don’t discount that.
But the underlying reality was never addressed. In areas where cooperation and equality prevails, the Stigmergic Myth is useful. But in areas of conflict and inequality, it can be a real hindrance to understanding what is going on. It can be far less less an expression of collective will or desire than other less distributed approaches, and while fixing the signals and the system is crucial, it’s worth asking if the underlying myth is holding our understanding back.