In this post, I apply to swarm writing Cilliers' second characteristic of complex systems, rich interactions:
The elements interact dynamically by exchanging energy or information. These interactions are rich. Even if specific elements only interact with a few others, the effects of these interactions are propagated throughout the system. The interactions are nonlinear. There are many direct and indirect feedback loops.This single characteristic could easily be parsed into half a dozen characteristics, but I think the main idea for me is that the emergence of a complex system such as swarm writing depends upon the ability and tendency of various elements to interact with one another. Prior to this rich interaction, a collection of elements is no more than a random scattering of people with no connection and no interactions with one another. Not until these elements—say, a group of people who happen to share a MOOC—begin to interact can a complex system, such as swarm writing, emerge. The coherence and identity of the swarm emerges from the rich interactions among the elements. The entity that emerges—in our case, a swarm—functions and has its identity at a scale different from its individual elements.
The network of interactions within a complex system is kickstarted by the exchange of energy and information, and in the case of swarm writing, mostly by the exchange of information—though I think most of my fellows in the swarm will agree that we exchanged lots of energy as well. Flows of energy and information inform all complex systems, and this process connects the emergence of writing swarms with the emergence of stars, galaxies, earths, life, nation states, the Internet, and love affairs. This flow of energy and information is about as fundamental a process as humans can imagine, and I find it gratifying to imagine a rhetoric that begins at the same place as the Universe.
I think, then, that our document about swarm writing should say more about the exchanges of information and energy that informed the emergence of our particular swarm. I believe this would clarify for recalcitrant readers what we are trying to say. I can begin a list of the information and energy that I know about, but I really need my swarm here. Flows of energy and information are much like the flows of streams that feed a river: they come from a thousand different sources and take a million different paths. I cannot know all of them. Even my swarm cannot know all of them, but they can know enough of them to give a sense of the complex ecosystem that we are trying to describe. We should do this.
Then, the interactions among the actors in a swarm are mostly local, but because they are nonlinear with many direct and indirect feedback loops, they can propagate throughout the swarm. This makes great sense of any swarm, writing or otherwise. For instance, I interacted mostly with a handful of people and mostly through Facebook and Google Docs. Others in the swarm interacted with a different group of actors, similar to mine, but not the same (note the fractal flavor here). Moreover, my local, immediate connections morphed from the beginnings with #rhizo14 until this latest version of the swarm writing this document.
Like all the different actors in the #rhizo14 swarm, I brought certain ideas and energy to the group mostly communicated to my immediate, local connections. Those connections then muted some of my ideas, or amplified some. The amplified ideas propagated to the rest of the #rhizo14 swarm, perturbing the group in various ways, changing the flavors of its interactions and identity. In communication terms, I was helping to develop and re-channel the conversation, as were other actors in the swarm. These complex set of interactions are what made #rhizo14 and its sub-swarms what they are. I think we need to say that in our current essay. We can at least hint at it, providing a general sketch.
Then, note the interactions between the different scales of the swarm. The entities that function at different scales—the total #rhizo14 swarm, the sub-swarms, the individuals—are not insulated from each other. Rather, energy and information are exchanged across scales in direct and indirect feedback loops that inform and modify each other. Each scale feeds on the other scales, modifies its own internal structures and functions, and then feeds back to the other scales, which modify in turn, around and around in a mostly elegant swarm.
Finally, the nature and identity of the swarm emerges from the interactions among the actors, not from the individual characteristics—such as intelligence or beliefs about education—of the individual actors. The documents that emerge from swarm writing are a result of the network of rich interactions among the actors. The documents are the result of non-linear mathematical operations, not the result of simple linear addition or subtraction. Thus, small events such as using Slack or not can lead to big effects. Similarly, large events such as the failure of #rhizo16 to actually convene can lead to small effects. Moreover, the interactions are not all nice. Our writing swarm did not simply hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Interactions are at various times cooperative, collaborative, and competitive. We challenged each other, usually courteously, but not always. We should discuss this in our paper.
I think our paper will benefit from a brief description and discussion of the rich interactions in our swarm, and I challenge our group to consider it.