Systems - an insight

Seeing beyond the trees

For untold generations, the tendency for some types of toadstool to grow in rings was a mystery: an unexplainable phenomenon. It is easy to see how this was associated with elves and faires. What else could explain this structural organization?

Of course, we now know the reason. The toadstools aren't separate organisms, they are the fruiting bodies of a single, unseen fungus that lives beneath the soil. The circle marks its outer perimeter, from where the fruiting bodies (the toadstools) emerge.

Systems are often like this. You can see the interfaces, where the system interacts with people, but you cannot see the invisible organization that lies beneath.

During the development of this stigmergicsystems.com website, many people commented on the parts they could see: in particular, the agents and the Kempelen boxes. They would exclaim:

"What's special about this? It's something that any high-school student can get together with a simple database program".

One critic commented, in an early review of the site:

"It's a very neat, simple idea, but it is dressed up in a plethora of unnecessary technical jargon to make it look important".

They had been looking at the toadstools and were oblivious of the complex organism hidden from view

The point is that the Kemplen boxes, and the agents they contain, are the very simple database-like stuctures that are the visible parts of an intangible organization that has no visible form. Of course it is easy to create these structures in a database, but you can only do this once you have the data to work with. The theory is to do with getting the information there in the first place - not is dealing with it once it is there.

The theory has nothing at all to do with the selection, ordering and categorizing of the information. It is about creating a system that enables people to collaborate. The theoretical stuff isn't anything to do with what happens in a computer. It is about what is happening to the system as a whole: how people react to the system; what makes them collaborate in such a system; how the system evolves to become increasingly more efficient.

The trick is to step back from what you see, to get a view of the system in its entirety. Don't look at the toadstools. Look at the hidden fungus.

Stigmergy originated from the study of ants. But, the understanding came not from looking at the behaviour of individual ants, but in seeing an ant colony as an entity in its own right. Not hundreds of thousands of individual insects, but a two kilogram creature, whose structure consists of several hundred thousand components.

Bear this in mid when you look at the SEO project. The stigmergic system doesn't select, order or categorize the information. It doesn't even select the agents. It is an enigma. The more you study the way it works, the less functional part the stigmergic system appears to play.

But, this is typical of all biological systems - which have been famously described as:

"An enigma within an enigma within an enigma".