Mark Elliott on Stigmergic Collaboration

By Howard Rheingold, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 11 years 13 weeks ago.

Cooperation Commons member Mark Elliott has published Stigmergic Collaboration: The Evolution of Group Work, an impressively terse and lucid exploration of the connections between biological swarm intelligence and human intentional collaboration:

Pierre-Paul Grasse first coined the term stigmergy in the 1950s in conjunction with his research on termites. Grasse showed that a particular configuration of a termite’s environment (as in the case of building and maintaining a nest) triggered a response in a termite to modify its environment, with the resulting modification in turn stimulating the response of the original or a second worker to further transform its environment. Thus the regulation and coordination of the building and maintaining of a nest was dependent upon stimulation provided by the nest, as opposed to an inherent knowledge of nest building on the individual termite’s part. A highly complex nest simply self-organises due to the collective input of large numbers of individual termites performing extraordinarily simple actions in response to their local environment. Since Grasse’s research, stigmergy has been applied to the self-organisation of ants, artificial life, swarm intelligence and more recently, the Internet itself.

As stigmergy is a method of communication in which individuals communicate with one another by modifying their local environment, it is a logical extension to apply the term to many types (if not all) of Web-based communication, especially media such as the wiki. The concept of stigmergy therefore provides an intuitive and easy-to-grasp theory for helping understand how disparate, distributed, ad hoc contributions could lead to the emergence of the largest collaborative enterprises the world has seen. However, is it correct to call these enterprises "collaboration?"