Lessons from the Anthill


Editor’s note: This article was written by me and originally published in the Online Community Report in 2002.  OCR went on hiatus in 2004, and when it came back in 2006 only a few of its old archived articles remained on the site.  With their permission, I am republishing this article on this site for historical interest, along with a new epilogue explaining where the story is today.


With the passing of Stephen Jay Gould on May 20, the world has lost one of its most forceful and incisive scientific voices. Gould was perhaps the most visible modern proponent of the theory of evolution (how many other paleontologists have an appearance on The Simpsons to their credit?), and one of the few scientists since Darwin to not only recount what we know about evolution but also to add major contributions of his own — particularly his theory of "punctuated equilibria", which held that evolution could be a swift and violent process, in contrast with the traditional view of evolution as something that happened gradually over long periods of time.

It’s interesting to reflect on the ways that evolution has shaped different species. Consider, if you will, the lowly ant. It is hard to imagine a creature that functions differently from a human being. The story of human progress has been shaped dramatically by the actions of singular individuals, people who drive society in a new direction through force of arms, intellect, or will. By contrast, ants have evolved into a purely collectivist species; instead of free will, which allows individuals to control the destiny of the group, they operate through fixed behavior patterns. On their own, each ant’s behavior is relatively useless, but when swarms of ants come together, the patterns optimize naturally and allow them to accomplish tasks that should be far beyond their reach. To the outside observer, their self-organizing efforts seem to be directed by some larger force or collective intelligence. Theirs is a society that is truly more than the sum of its parts.

This model seems fairly antithetical to the human experience. And yet, as our communications networks draw us closer and closer together, we are beginning to see some signs of such behavior emerging in our own communities. The networks we have built allow us to profitably take a page from the playbook of the ants, getting something we want by pulling together large groups of people, with each taking a small chunk of the responsibility. These "anthill communities" are springing up all over the place, and they are creating a whole new concept of what people are capable of.

OUT FROM THE PRIMORDIAL OOZE…

For most of its history, the Internet was the exclusive province of a class of alpha geeks squirreled away in academia, defense, and related institutions. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the first collective intelligences to emerge from the soup of the Net were technically-oriented. These anthill communities sprang up to solve specific problems: to create software that the commercial sector wouldn’t, or to clone software that was encumbered with onerous license and patent provisions. Across the world, loose networks of volunteers hacked away at tiny chunks of code, bringing their finished work back to contribute to the whole.

When it started, this kind of work didn’t have a name; it was just programmers helping each other solve problems. Today, though, it has evolved into a full-fledged force in the IT industry, and it’s become important enough to have not one name, but two: Open Source or Free Software (depending on whom you ask). The fruits of these programmers’ work — Open Source projects like Linux, Apache, and Mozilla — have become the backbone of today’s Internet, yielding products that in many cases are more reliable and powerful than their commercial counterparts.

This is not the only way to develop software, of course. In most of the industry, the model used was more traditionally human: the Hero Geek who blazes the trail with an innovative new product or idea, followed by the masses of lesser foot soldiers who follow him into history. Almost every one of the major commercial tech companies has or had someone to fit the Hero Geek role: Steve Wozniak at Apple (usurped by Steve Jobs after the success of the Apple II), Larry Ellison at Oracle, and of course Bill Gates of Microsoft are all examples of the Hero Geek at work.

The Internet, however, allows the creation of a new model of development in which the Hero Geek is obsolete, replaced instead by a kind of collective intelligence derived from the effect of a large number of smart people all critiquing each other’s work. In the words of open source evangelist Eric Raymond, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." In other words, instead of relying on the omnipotent Hero Geek to foresee problems and head them off at the pass, it’s possible now to gather a sufficiently large number of people so that, if a problem does exist, it’s a statistical likelihood that one of them will spot it and fix it. The system organizes itself organically, just like the anthill.

… AND INTO THE STREETS

Today, however, the population of the Internet isn’t just alpha geeks. It’s everyday folks of all ages and interests. One might have expected that, as the Net came to look more like the real world, we’d see fewer and fewer of these anthill communities emerging. That’s the bet the major media companies seem to be making; their whole business model is predicated on the idea that the vast majority of users are just consumers, looking to be passively fed content from a trusted authority. That’s what’s worked in the television and radio industries, so why not here?

Thankfully, though, the trend seems to be in the other direction — not only are more and more anthill communities coming together, but they are developing around interests that are more and more diverse (and less and less computer-oriented) each day. The proposition is too good to resist — in exchange for a small amount of work on the part of each individual, the whole community gets to enjoy a benefit that’s too large for any of them to accomplish individually. And the more people you bring into the system, the smaller everyone’s workload gets, or the bigger the benefit can become, so there’s a built-in recruiting incentive for participants to involve the best minds around them.

One example is OpenLaw. A project of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, OpenLaw is an experiment in collaborative development of legal arguments. OpenLaw is open to both lawyers and non-lawyers; it simply provides all the relevant documents surrounding a case and a set of discussion tools to allow users to interact. The users then propose potential arguments to one another, and poke holes in each other’s strategies to find logical weaknesses before the argument ever reaches the ears of a judge. The first case OpenLaw has taken on, Eldred v. Ashcroft, a challenge to Congress’ 1998 retroactive extension of the length of a copyright term from 50 to 70 years, has been working its way through the court system since 1999 and was recently granted certiorari by the U.S. Supreme Court, meaning that the Court has agreed to hear the case sometime in the near future.

In the design world, another collaborative project is ThinkCycle. The goal of ThinkCycle is to apply the skills and expertise of designers and engineers in prosperous countries to solve problems in underdeveloped and underserved communities. Participants develop and posit "challenges" which the community can then put its collective brainpower to work trying to solve. The challenges cover a wide range of topics, including health, education, energy, and sustainable living. ThinkCycle offers participants the same benefit that OpenLaw does: the chance to tap into a global brain trust, and therefore find flaws or weaknesses in your thinking in the early stages of a development project, when the cost of making changes is low.

Another anthill community is springing up in response to a human tragedy. Robert X. Cringely, the technology-industry guru at PBS Online behind such programs as "Triumph of the Nerds" (a history of the PC industry) and "Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet", recently wrote in his weekly column of a terrible event in his life: his infant son, Chase, had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is an example of how, for all our scientific advancement, we still don’t really understand how the human mind and body work. In the case of SIDS, sometimes otherwise healthy babies just die, and nobody is certain why.

After his child’s death, Cringely decided that there had to be something he could do to make something good come out of the senseless loss. In his next weekly column, he proposed an idea for a device to help combat SIDS: a simplifed version of a monitor used in hospitals to warn caregivers of the onset of sleep apnea, a syndrome in which breathing stops suddenly during sleep. Cringely announced his goal to build a version of this device that could be sold for less than $10 and would be small enough to be sewn into a child’s pajamas. Today, only weeks after his child’s death, Cringely has received contributions of ideas and time from more than one thousand people, and they are in the process of organizing a community site at http://www.chasecringely.org to coordinate their work. They’re just getting started, but if they can build such a device — and Cringely seems certain, after consulting with the experts, that it’s possible — this is one anthill community that could potentially provide lifesaving assistance for parents everywhere.

So, are these anthill communities successful? In most cases, it’s too early to tell. The first generation of anthills, the open source projects, clearly are: it’s no accident that Apache is the most common Web server in use today, or that more and more companies are putting Linux in devices as small as PDAs and as
large as mainframe computers. The next generation of anthills, though — the ones that take the anthill principle out of the server closet and into the real world — are just getting off the ground, so it will be a while before we can judge their relative success. What is clear, however, is that we are witnessing the birth of a new way of getting things done, a way that moves us away from our traditional dependence on the innovative individual and instead draws out innovation from our collective wisdom. Has our technology punctured our equilibrium? Are we evolving into something more like the humble, yet powerful ant? Sadly, the man who could answer that question is no longer with us, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

EPILOGUE (December 13, 2006): Well, this was certainly an influential article, for me at least; it led me to start the Ant’s Eye View blog, where I wrote from 2002-2005 on this very issue. 

Ironically, most of the examples I cited in this original article don’t have particularly inspiring endings.  The OpenLaw crew ended up losing Eldred v. Ashcroft in the Supreme Court, and Cringely’s SIDS-monitor project never got off the ground (chasecringely.org now redirects to his main site). 

The core ideas I wrote about, though, are perhaps stronger now than they ever have been; they’re a central part of the so-called "Web 2.0" movement, and sites like Digg, Flickr and YouTube have parlayed the "lots of little contributions" model into great success. One of the reasons I stopped covering this was precisely because of that; an idea that was avant-garde in 2002 had become "common sense" just three years later. And writing about something that everybody agrees with isn’t nearly as much fun as writing about something that nobody agrees with Tongue out

My attempt to brand "anthill communities"?  Not so successful.  But it’s good to see the ideas take off, even if the labels we’ve given them belong to Tim O’Reilly rather than me.


Comments

Joshua Bloom

December 20, 2006
11:24 am

Hi Jason, commenting would be a lot easier if I could see the article I was commenting on…
Anyway I wanted to discuss this sentence:
“The story of human progress has been shaped dramatically by the actions of singular individuals, people who drive society in a new direction through force of arms, intellect, or will”
This is what’s known as the Great Man theory of history and gets a lot of backup from the way history is written and taught. An alternate theory says that these men are the products of their time and culture. The idea being the period in which these men appear is so conducive that someone will rise to fill that post and lead the charge, changing the course of history.
-Josh


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