Michael McKennedy

Michael McKennedy

Interpreting an ant’s behavior can be quite difficult, especially without the accompaniment of a confident young relative. What an ant is doing at any given moment is often just as vague as why the ant is doing it. We do know, however, that behaviors of individual ants are heavily influenced by ongoing interaction patterns within the colony network, which in many ways is similar to the way we navigate our networked world.

Ant Interactions

First, some background on ant interactions drawn from the work of Stanford’s Deborah Gordon:

  • Ant colony behavior arises from dynamical networks of interactions among ants.
  • The pattern of interaction is more important than content in influencing behavior.
  • Ants react to two kinds of external information: changes in the outside world and interactions with each other.
  • The smaller the colony, the more reliance on environmental cues. The larger the colony, the more each ant relies on interactions with others.
  • Nest architecture determines how ants and resources are distributed, which influences the rate at which traffic flows, and these in turn influence the rate of interaction among ants.

“Differences among species in the speed and intensity of the colony’s reactions come from differences in the rate at which the network is ticking, how often the ants interact, and how quickly and how much they respond.” –Deborah Gordon

Emergent Behavior

Colony behavior can be described as emergent in the sense that the local interactions of the parts produce coordinated behavior of the whole. In effect, behavior of the entire ant colony (the swarm) is the culmination of many simple ant (the agent) actions. This swarm-agent concept can be extended to systems with similar architectures: colony-ants, flock-birds, traffic-cars, crowd-people, immune system-cells/molecules, economy-transactions, team-players, etc.

“A man, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of his behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which he finds himself.” –Swarm Intelligence

Network Living

The world is becoming more connected. We network, tweet, like and comment. We live in a colony (or multiple colonies, as the case may be) with an increasing number of possible interactions. Like large ant colonies, we react more to our interactions with others than to our physical environment. Reminiscent of the Thoreau telegraph quote, we establish connections without regard to the content to be communicated…until the next murder trial, missing person, pseudo-celebrity, political scandal du jour. And reaction times have become much quicker. We’ve become so dependent upon frequent interactions that many companies grind to a halt during technology disruptions. The groans for wifi outages are palpable. While we have many wonderful technical advances compared to prior generations, we may be close to our saturation point when it comes to interactions. Imagine caffeinated ants with smartphones.

If withdrawing from the modern network is impractical, self-regulating our interactions seems sensible. A basic understanding of the differences between noteworthy signals and mere noise in the environment is a good start, as is an awareness of the key network agents in your organization. Strive to send and receive only meaningful messages. Architect your network cadence accordingly. Step away periodically and request others do the same. Some days it’s nice to be a wandering ant.