Novel Stigmergy Structures in the Internet

The Web is a vast collection of software organisms. Novel stigmergy structures are growing in the Internet and exerting their organizing power in new ways.

The Linux termite mound The vast messaging structure called the Internet harbors many self-organizing multicellular digital structures. More evolve every year. And multitudes of "single cell" devices, PCs, laptops, iPod/Pad/Phones, Android smart phones, and various sensor and effector devices communicate with the many digital stigmergy structures discussed below.

Linux source code, for example, is a relatively new kind of digital stigmergy structure that can be thought of as a software termite mound. Linux's source code is organized by the “blessed” Concurrent Versions System (CVS) repository that is under the control of the Linux “inner circle” (Linus Torvalds, Alan Cox, etc). Clearly, the Linux CVS code tree is both built by, and helps to organize the efforts of, the worldwide community of Linux programmers. Classic stigmergy! The Open-Source revolution that gave us Linux, Apache, MySQL, Mozilla/Firefox and OpenOffice depends upon such open, distributed software stigmergy structures.

The Internet supports many other public stigmergy structures that are collectively managed and used by humanity[1]. The entire Web is itself a distributed stigmergy structure constantly being modified and constantly influencing the organization of the humans and computers that use it. The Web as a whole is a living digital stigmergy structure.

Examples of emergent digital stigmergy structures in the Internet include:

Note that all of these novel communities are organized around new stigmergy structures, i.e., new digital selves, of a sort that didn’t exist previously. Their worldwide scope, speed, and enablement of new kinds of interaction emerge out of the scope, speed, and protean flexibility of the Internet. They also typically operate in a climate that is diametrically opposed to the corporate tendencies to hoard and leverage secret or proprietary knowledge.

Open Internet-based systems mutate and grow by the self-organizing activity of large numbers of users that share a stigmergy structure. They mutate and evolve more rapidly than corporate IT infrastructures. For example, P2P networks grow organically because their infrastructure grows at the same rate as their “customer” base. Each user contributes some resources to the network in exchange for participating in the network. Thus Skype, a free VOIP network, grew very rapidly in its early stages with almost no expenditure of its own resources while the Telcos struggled to adapt. Similarly, public databases, once accepted in their relevant communities, can grow much more rapidly than can a competing proprietary database. Many a bioinformatics startup company has found it impossible to provide proprietary for-fee databases in competition with free public databases.

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[1] “humanity” is an overstatement. Only the digitally connected can participate. But cell-phones are making dramatic inroads in rural Africa and India, and smart-phones will eventualy follow. The reach of the net is threatened, however, by attempts to balkanize the Internet into censored and controlled subnets, e.g., in countries such as Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran.

[2] GenBank manages DNA sequence data, PDB manages protein structure data, Pub Med manages biological and medical publications, and BIND manages protein-protein interaction data. There are hundreds of other useful bioinformatics databases freely available on the Web.

Last revised 3/14/2015