Thursday, April 5, 2018

RhizoRhetoric: 7 Self-Organize

The ability to adapt, or self-organize, is Cilliers' final characteristic of complex systems. He says it this way:
Complex systems are adaptive. They can (re)organize their internal structure without the intervention of an external agent.
I reveal my professional bias by saying it this way: complex systems can learn. And though we typically think of learning in human terms, learning is a characteristic of all complex systems from microbes and bacteria to galaxies. Some systems learn incredibly slowly (rocks, for instance, seem to adapt over millions of years) and some quickly, but all take in energy and information from their environments and reorganize themselves to accommodate changes in that environment.

Self-organization is key to a writing swarm, and in some ways, I can consider all of the previous characteristics of complex systems as the foundation to this: the ability to learn and self-organize. A writing swarm is a learning hive, and I think we all learned much.

First, we all learned more about the tools we were using. All of us in the swarm are computer literate and network savvy, yet each of us learned to use a new tool (for me, Slack) and to use new techniques for familiar tools. Here we can easily see the wonderful creative tension between memory, or existing knowledge which strives to keep the practices and structures that it has, and dynamic new knowledge which strives to change the swarm's practices and structures. Learning requires this interplay between the ability to change and resistance to change. Self-organization requires both the ability to change and the ability to resist change, adaptability as well as resilience.

Then, we all learned more about how academics are interacting on the Net, both in planned MOOCs and in looser, unplanned swarms. All of us in the swarm are highly educated academics with a substantial body of knowledge to bring to the swarm, and this body of knowledge forms a rich backdrop and resource within which to test, temper, and integrate new knowledge. As such, it both enables our ability to add to knowledge and brakes any impulse to change too quickly.

Finally, we all learned more about each other. Though few of us have met physically, all of us have gotten to know each other virtually. We are colleagues, and in some cases, friends. Whether friends or not, we trust each other, and in the few cases where trust has been undermined, the offending or offended persons have left the swarm.

In many ways, the self-organization of our particular swarm is mediated by the documents that we write. Unfortunately, the formal character of a finished, printed document obscures the tracks of the interactions that led to that formal arrangement. It's something like a formal family portrait that shows too little of how all these people are connected and interact. The history feature in Google Docs is able to reveal some of the traces of composition, and it is a vastly underutilized feature of Docs that merits substantial research. The data is there and should be mined.

We have much to say about how our swarm learned, but I wonder if we can say it all. I suspect that some learning takes place at the swarm scale, somewhat over our heads. I base this speculation (and it really is speculation) on the analogy of the bridges and rafts that army ants can build to overcome obstacles. In her Quantamagazine article "The Remarkable Self-Organization of Ants", Emily Singer explains how army ants build bridges of themselves to get the foraging swarm across gaps in their path, "a marquee example of a complex decentralized system that arises from the interactions of many individuals," much like our writing swarm. Singer says:
Bridges are built based on simple rules and possess surprising strength and flexibility. As soon as an ant senses a gap in the road, it starts to build a bridge, which can reach a span of tens of centimeters and involve hundreds of ants. Once the structure is formed, the ants will maintain their position as long as they feel traffic overhead, dismantling the bridge as soon as the traffic lightens.
The key point for me is that the ants are mostly responding to local conditions and to the few ants immediately around them. The bridge is an emergent property at a higher scale of the ants' local and simpler behavior. I have to wonder if any of the ants actually knows that it is building a bridge, or is it just doing what makes sense at the moment? Similarly, did our swarm learn things that are literally over our individual heads? Well, this will take much more thought.

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