The Birth of Swarm Intelligence

Twitter is the human swarm: an always-on, open, global and decentralized conversation. Twitter has undergone a phase change as a communications tool, and we see its effects globally, from news of the attacks in Mumbai to Toronto’s tech scene. Something new is emerging, something very powerful: Twitter is becoming a platform for collective action.

Whale in the sky, by Gail Johnson
Whale in the sky, by Gail Johnson

In Toronto, #HoHoTO was a holiday party held December 16, 2008 to raise funds for the Daily Bread Foodbank that has had a big local impact and received coverage all over the online and traditional media.  I think the Toronto tech community will look at this event the way some of us look back at the first BarCamp in Toronto in November 2005, a milestone in the emergence of a new community made possible by technology.

Since then, a myriad projects have hatched on or been assisted by Twitter. #thmvmnt is reimagining how free-agent creative and design professionals work, collaborate and make the world better. #ChangeCamp is changing the way we think about government, democracy and citizenship. #tsTO is a conversation about “TwitterSpace” – garages and war rooms provided by Twitter patrons that act as distributed temporary incubators for projects born in the swarm. #svc is looking to launch a Social Venture Commons leveraging the power of the hyper-connected twittersphere.

What is going on here?

Jay Goldman recently described it as ant colony communication – we’re leaving little pheromone signals in our digital wake. They act as attractors to trigger self-organizing behaviours among others in the colony.

Hive, a short film by The Movement co-founder and instigator Alan Smith, foretold the story of its emergence:

Clay Shirky has talked about how online social networks and communities are entering a new phase of development, one of collective action. We’re watching this new form emerge from its cocoon, and it’s fascinating.

Humanity appears to be undergoing a techno-social evolution right in front of our eyes. Is Hive’s superorganism being born, and are we part of it? Is the Web truly Us?

I believe it is, and I believe that this is not only good, but it is critical to our survival. All around us are huge, intractable problems of collective action: crisis and the risk of collapse are in our ecological, economic, political and cultural environments. What better evolutionary development than a collective intelligence enabled to in a decentralized way coordinate collective action to these very problems?

To realize the potential of this collective intelligence, we have problems to solve:

  1. How do we involve, include and reflect the values of the non-connected periphery in our hyper-connected core?
  2. How do the myriad fleeting ideas that emerge find stable structures to see them through to execution?
  3. How will existing structures have to adapt in order to allow this new potential to be realized and harnessed?
  4. Whose interests are served by the new emergent order and whose interests are harmed? How will those conflicting interests be negotiated?

If you’re interested in these questions and have some ideas on how to solve these meta problems, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment or better yet join the conversation on Twitter: #swarmintelligence, I’m @remarkk.

20 thoughts on “The Birth of Swarm Intelligence”

  1. Thank you for writing about this, Mark. I find myself coming in just after the beginning of some of these ideas and have difficulty catching up until things are well underway. The idea of finding a structure to see them through execution is very insightful. The challenge is that we all are following different people on Twitter, and so may inadvertently be missing a vital piece of the conversation. I noticed when the idea of #hohoTO first started, Rob Hyndman retweeted everyone’s thoughts so that everyone else would see them. Some kind of convention like this (or a place to post them all) would be a good idea. Following the tags using Twitter Search is okay, but people forget to use the tags, or at the very beginning of ideas there are no tags, or some people’s tweets may be closed. So, it takes someone playing the intermediary to get the communication back out to everyone that is key to really harness the groupthink.

    I look forward to these and other projects, and offer myself up to help any way I can.

    I also appreciate your taking the lead in so many ways!


  2. Thanks for the kind comment Connie! As Lee Dale (@smack416) just said, we need a cheat sheet for all the hashtagged projects that are popping everyday in Twitter. No doubt someone will create one.

    I believe that eventually, as in the HoHoTO example, the people hatching the idea create something more accessible once they’ve got something coherent to say.

    Catching one of these things as they emerge has a lot to do with good timing or just sheer availability. We’ll see what happens when everyone’s back hard at work after the holidays.

  3. Mark, brilliant post bringing this all together. I do think there is the potential for a foundational shift in how we organize ourselves and our resources and I think the Toronto twitter community has some great and unique momentum going.

    There’s also never been a better time to start a venture for-change or for-profit and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of what’s being stirred up here.

    Great post and great leadership… thanks!

  4. There are some projects which are actively trying to bring all these feats together (though without twitter, or any other commercial enterprise). Most notably, the Metagovernment project, which has several novel ways of solving the problems you enumerate:

  5. Really loved this post, Mark. I especially appreciate you bringing up problem/questions #1 & #4 – how do we harness all the great ideas/people Twitter & other technology brings together without leaving behind those that are not connected & being aware of the new power structures these can create.

    I am looking forward to hearing your ideas as you flesh these out and collaborating/contributing where it makes sense. Really happy to have connected to you!

  6. I agree with much of your timely reMarks. I would like to see the question of “How do the myriad fleeting ideas that emerge find stable structures…” revised to read: structures which subvert existing power structures to incubate new systems prioritizing the leadership of women and marginalized populations.

    I am also perpetually stumbling into these questions with our recent:
    – successful #phonesforfearless campaign that was driven by twitter, and
    – the twitter launch this week of an ICT Cluster for the DTES (one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods), as well as
    – our plans to crowd source $2.6 million in the next year for a crossmedia centre at Woodwards. Conventional strategies are just not an option for this work.

    I am really interested how we can establish new action instruments to address reshuffled social priorities. The fuel will likely be a conscious proactive coalescing around principles guiding our longterm cultural survival. I am hopeful it won’t be business as usual – surrounding ourselves with fashionable tools – as the twitterati maintains its class privilege.

    Interesting opportunities for forging new alliances, and realigning our expectations of “return” for our labour.

  7. A great post, raising important questions about our future connectedness. The interesting angle on this is – once we reach the collective consciousness that mankind has been, perhaps unintentionally or subconsciously, working toward for thousands of years, what’s next?

  8. Thanks for all the great comments! I’m now realizing the we need a new norm of twitternames for blog comments.

    Connie: Clearly there’s a lot of room for innovation in the tools we use to solicit and direct collective action. This is exactly what’s driving the #SVC conversation that @Igniter, er, ignited.

    Mike: Thank you for being an amazing instigator in all of this. I’m so pleased to have such stunning collaborators.

    Halflan: Thanks for the link! I’ll have a look and hope that we can link this to #ChangeCamp (an unconference to reimagine government in Canada for the participation age) and

    Amrita: My sense tells me that the gulf between connected and disconnected can only be bridged through work out in the real world, engaging each other face-to-face and employing all the creative outlets humans have available to them in both the physical and digital worlds.

    Irwin: I don’t have a normative view on these power structures other than recognizing that they exist and are in a process of shifting. Your #phonesforfearless project is a beautiful example of the enabling potential of participatory and mobile technologies. How the enabled then use these tools to take action, make culture and further their individual and community interests will be fascinating to watch.

    Ramla: Thank you for sharing your excellent article! It got me thinking about socially constructed conceptions of global governance from my past academic work in International Political Economy. You’ve given food for thought to revisit some of that material. We are seeing a cascade of governance FAIL all over the place today, so a more resilient adaptation is critical to our survival.

    Alan: I think the questions here are central to the self-creation process at the heart of #thmvmnt and its sustainability as a new form of work, life and betterment. Thank you for inspiring me through your work.

    Chris: Evolutionary consciousness is something that I find very interesting and relevant in the context of Twitter. I know that Kurzweil would say that the Singularity is Near, but if it is, who will be the actors who frame that emerging consciousness? If the Singularity isn’t near, there is definitely *something* that’s emerging, so the question is still relevant: what are the values of our technosocial evolution?

    Great brainfodder. Thanks for joining the conversation. Remember to @remarkk and say hi. 🙂

  9. Great post. Almost enough to make me join Twitter. Almost.

    Some thoughts in response to your provocative questions…

    1. How do we involve, include and reflect the values of the non-connected periphery in our hyper-connected core?

    But in a network there are multiple cores and multiple peripheries – one man’s core is another’s periphery. So isn’t this really relative? Any single core will have a periphery that is, well, inherently peripheral… unless we’re talking about reaching out to any given core’s given periphery…but there’s always periphery…

    2. How do the myriad fleeting ideas that emerge find stable structures to see them through to execution?

    Here’s where we need new innovative “intermediary” structures…i like to think that CSI is trying to do this…and the movement among others… but here’s where i think a lot of new activity will take place in the coming years…

    3. How will existing structures have to adapt in order to allow this new potential to be realized and harnessed?

    This question plagues me. Can it be done incrementally? Or does it require destruction/rebirth? Some structures are so entrenched and so ossified that it’s hard to imagine how anything other than their collapse could really result in change… but i look to Obama’s example as a potential way of incrementally changing a firmly established set of structures…

  10. Clearly there is some intelligence emerging in this comment thread.

    We need action, we need to try things, we need to start now. We can’t plan this. If it is happen it will happen, we can only do more, and more will be different.

    There’s an openness to this, but even more interesting is the power relations mentioned. I imagine the unjustified power of hierarchy has something to lose, and the budding power of global betterment something to gain.

  11. This is one of the creepiest ideas I’ve ever come across on the Web, and believe you me, I’ve tripped over some doozies.

    First off: count me out of your “we,” please.

    Secondly, and more importantly: consider for a moment that the “non-connected periphery” may (a) not consider themselves to be at all peripheral and (b) may not want to be connected to your benevolent colonial organism at all.

    In order to arrive at a valid understanding of “whose interests are harmed,” you’re first going to have to reckon with the full agency, autonomy and humanity of that “periphery.” I don’t get a whiff of that from your comments here.

    Thirdly: You’re not at all concerned that self-awareness and self-consciousness – i.e. the wellsprings of what we’re pleased to call our humanity – only interfere with the resolution of collective-action and coordination problems? That if all you want to do is optimize against such problem sets, you need very little more than algorithmic local intelligence? That you may be not-so-subtly devaluing and deprecating everything that separates us from minnows, or ants, or neurons?

    And finally: The Movement? Really?

  12. The reason I love the blog format alongside the micro-content of Twitter is the opportunity to think out loud in a fuller, yet still unfinished way.

    Adam, I particularly appreciate your comment. What little I know of your work I know from seeing you speak at LIFT on ubiquitous computing. So I appreciate your critique – both for its smackdown and insight qualities.

    The way I think of periphery in this context is all those who, by choice or issues of access, do not join the accelerating open micro-content communication revolution. My concern about this widening gulf is precisely that the hyper-connected few pat themselves on the back and redesign the world while either ignoring or patronizing the disconnected many.

    I think the idea of a superorganism is a useful metaphor. Clearly it is ONLY a metaphor, with limits to its usefulness. Of course humans have remarkable individual creative agency unavailable to a bee or ant. We always have free will and freedom of choice, but the construction of those choices happens within a social context, a context being transformed by our technologies.

    As we reconfigure our social and political institutions in part along self-organizing rather than hierarchical lines, I think the concepts of “collective intelligence”, “swarm intelligence” or “superorganism” provide useful patterns for insight into the dynamics of the systems we are remaking for ourselves.

    In fact, I’m very curious about how these emerging dynamics connect with your concept of the , a “manifesto on open-source constitutions for post-national entities”. I need to sit down with that and ponder, and encourage the commenters to this post to read it and offer their thoughts.

    Eli, all I have to say is thank you for your contributions to this thread and I’ll offer some more thoughtful response soon.

    Join the convo on Twitter, hashtag: #swarmintelligence.

  13. I think the idea of a superorganism is a useful metaphor. Clearly it is ONLY a metaphor, with limits to its usefulness.

    Why use a metaphor, then, if it’s so likely to be misunderstood? If you take your idea seriously, I would think you’d want to take the time to express it in language that captures its essence, rather than using a metaphor so likely to distract or mislead your interlocutors with the baggage it carries along with it.

    At any rate: I don’t have serious conversations on Twitter. It’s wonderful for developing a sense for what I call “the Big Here,” but a lousy channel for contemplation and reflection. Which isn’t its fault, right? I mean, why should we expect that insight and subtlety of thought require anything but hard and mostly solitary work?

  14. At every phase of connectedness, there has been a technology:

    * Telephones
    * Postings on community bulletin boards
    * Zines
    * Newspapers
    * BBSs
    * IRC
    * Blogs
    * RSS
    * Wikis
    * Skype groups
    * Facebook
    * Twitter

    There will be another technology for connecting.

    Tapscott & Williams propose that there are 4 principles for collective intelligence to exist:

    1. Openness
    2. Peering
    3. Sharing
    4. Acting globally

    The Twitter conversation significantly changes the Openness, Peering and Acting Globally conditions. You gain followers by being open and treating individuals as peers. The ability to gather a global community of interested members makes for a powerful tool.

    I’m interested to the answers to the 4 questions you provide at the end of the post.

    @davidcrow –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *