eBay and termite mounds: why the network is the best designer

I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article with interest (Why the revolution will not be tweeted).

Addressing the role that social media plays in activism, he delicately skewers the level of engagement members of a Facebook group have in comparison to members of the civil rights movement in the 60’s. Entertaining stuff, and music to the ears of anyone who has been patronised about making a difference by someone whose sole charitable involvement is spending a quid on a plastic wristband.

One section of his article didn’t convince:

There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

A good question. The answer? You let the system make the difficult choices for you by ceding control and letting a natural order emerge.

Both the human and the animal world have examples of groups designing collectively in a manner which exceeds the capability of a single member (or smaller group). Design success is achieved precisely because there is no one individual in charge.

The examples most commonly given relate to termites and how they build their mounds. The process is simple:

  • All termites make mudballs
  • They deposit these at random
  • They leave a chemical trace behind on the mudballs
  • They drop mudballs where the chemical trace is strongest
  • Over time, large columns form from the amassed mudballs
  • As the columns grow larger, the chemical trace attracts neighbouring columns
  • Arches form as neighbouring columns intersect, and the mound – the colony home – is born

The finished product is a complex structure of cells, chambers and tunnels in which the members of the colony live. At no point in the extended building process is a plan decided and followed. There is no leader. No termite knows how to respond other than to a specific pattern in its local environment. Yet you end up with a structure which is not only beautiful, but intricately adapted to the environment – ventilated, cool and dry. The Amitermes meridionalis even aligns its mounds on a north-south axis in order to avoid the midday sun – only the narrow knife edge is exposed at high noon. Tiny insects with minute brains working in close harmony. The expertise of the system far outweighs the expertise of the individuals which comprise it.

Another example would be ants and how they search for food.

  • Certain ants, as they return to the nest with food, lay down a trail pheromone
  • This trail attracts and guides other ants to the food
  • It is continually renewed as long as the food holds out
  • When the supply begins to dwindle, trailmaking ceases – the trail pheromone evaporates quickly so other ants stop coming to the site and are not confused by old trails when food is found elsewhere
  • Trails that no longer lead to food are also marked with a repellant pheromone

Again, an example of a self organising system. Low-level interactions (attractant and repellent pheromones) mean the system self-organises into a higher-level system of sophistication and intelligence – dynamic, able to react to circumstance. There’s no ant general marshalling the troops. They find food and bring it home. The rules are so simple they are extensively modelled by cognitive scientists.

Consider the human world, where networked environments online mean human behaviour is simplified. eBay is the first example to mind.

  • The system begins with no organisation
  • Transactions emerge as buyers are connected to sellers
  • Buyers are attracted to sellers with a visible track record
  • Transactions & feedback accumulate over time
  • Sellers with a greater amount of positive feedback attract more buyers in a positive feedback loop & recent of transactions have the most weight
  • Negative feedback stands out and acts as a warning to others not to engage
  • Over time hierarchy emerges for each category of goods

The beauty of how eBay works is its simplicity and visibility. As a buyer I can see the seller’s track record. The positive and the negative. The system adapts to adopt new sellers and reject unscrupulous ones. The system self-organises with the minimum of interference or guidance. It has an adaptive meta intelligence of its own – hierarchical control would take thousands of man hours every week and arguably be far less efficient.

Feedback systems online are robust & flexible where the whole (e.g. a safe buying environment which reassures buyers) is far greater than the sum of its parts (e.g. individual transactions rated daily).

So to answer Gladwell’s point, decentralised control is a design option in networked environments. Not only that – looking at the beautiful simplicity of self-organising systems – it can be the best option.

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About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at a communications agency. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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2 Responses to eBay and termite mounds: why the network is the best designer

  1. Mark I. Lee says:

    Love your answer to Gladwell’s question. Especially refreshing is how you expose his assumption that there must be a leader to make decisions that nature has been making quite successfully for eons without a command-control structure (not sure if that was your main implication!).

  2. leitmot1f says:

    Thanks Mark, appreciate it. Intelligent systems are counter-intuitive and fascinating. Humans are used to hierarchy and control and we tend to think / organise ourselves in this manner – but there are alternatives which work better in many situations.

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