Zen masters once instructed novice disciples to approach
zen meditation with an unprejudiced "beginner's mind." The master
coached students, "Undo all preconceptions." The proper awareness
required to appreciate the swarm nature of complicated things might be
called hive mind. The swarm master coaches, "Loosen all attachments to
the sure and certain."
A contemplative swarm thought: The Atom is the icon of 20th century
The popular symbol of the Atom is stark: a black dot encircled by the
hairline orbits of several other dots. The Atom whirls alone, the
epitome of singleness. It is the metaphor for individuality: atomic. It
is the irreducible seat of strength. The Atom stands for power and
knowledge and certainty. It is as dependable as a circle, as regular as
The image of the planetary Atom is printed on toys and on baseball
caps. The swirling Atom works its way into corporate logos and
government seals. It appears on the back of cereal boxes, in school
books, and stars in TV commercials.
The internal circles of the Atom mirror the cosmos, at once a
law-abiding nucleus of energy, and at the same time the concentric
heavenly spheres spinning in the galaxy. In the center is the animus,
the It, the life force, holding all to their appropriate whirling
stations. The symbolic Atoms' sure orbits and definite interstices
represent the understanding of the universe made known. The Atom conveys
the naked power of simplicity.
Another Zen thought: The Atom is the past. The symbol of science for
the next century is the dynamical Net.
The Net icon has no center -- it is a bunch of dots connected to other
dots -- a cobweb of arrows pouring into each other, squirming together like
a nest of snakes, the restless image fading at indeterminate edges. The
Net is the archetype -- always the same picture -- displayed to represent all
circuits, all intelligence, all interdependence, all things economic and
social and ecological, all communications, all democracy, all groups,
all large systems. The icon is slippery, ensnaring the unwary in its
paradox of no beginning, no end, no center. Or, all beginning, all end,
pure center. It is related to the Knot. Buried in its apparent disorder
is a winding truth. Unraveling it requires heroism.
When Darwin hunted for an image to end his book Origin of Species -- a
book that is one long argument about how species emerge from the
conflicting interconnected self-interests of many individuals -- he found
the image of the tangled Net. He saw "birds singing on bushes, with
various insects flitting about, with worms crawling through the damp
earth"; the whole web forming "an entangled bank, dependent on each
other in so complex a manner."
The Net is an emblem of multiples. Out of it comes swarm
being -- distributed being -- spreading the self over the entire web so that
no part can say, "I am the I." It is irredeemably social, unabashedly of
many minds. It conveys the logic both of Computer and of Nature -- which in
turn convey a power beyond understanding.
Hidden in the Net is the mystery of the Invisible Hand -- control
without authority. Whereas the Atom represents clean simplicity, the Net
channels the messy power of complexity.
The Net, as a banner, is harder to live with. It is the banner of
noncontrol. Wherever the Net arises, there arises also a rebel to resist
human control. The network symbol signifies the swamp of psyche, the
tangle of life, the mob needed for individuality.
The inefficiencies of a network -- all that redundancy and ricocheting
vectors, things going from here to there and back just to get across the
street -- encompasses imperfection rather than ejecting it. A network
nurtures small failures in order that large failures don't happen as
often. It is its capacity to hold error rather than scuttle it that
makes the distributed being fertile ground for learning, adaptation, and
The only organization capable of unprejudiced growth, or unguided
learning, is a network. All other topologies limit what can happen.
A network swarm is all edges and therefore open ended any way you
come at it. Indeed, the network is the least structured organization
that can be said to have any structure at all. It is capable of infinite
rearrangements, and of growing in any direction without altering the
basic shape of the thing, which is really no outward shape at all. Craig
Reynolds, the synthetic flocking inventor, points out the remarkable
ability of networks to absorb the new without disruption: "There is no
evidence that the complexity of natural flocks is bounded in any way.
Flocks do not become 'full' or 'overloaded' as new birds join. When
herring migrate toward their spawning grounds, they run in schools
extending as long as 17 miles and containing millions of fish." How big
a telephone network could we make? How many nodes can one even
theoretically add to a network and still have it work? The question has
hardly even been asked.
There are a variety of swarm topologies, but the only organization
that holds a genuine plurality of shapes is the grand mesh. In fact, a
plurality of truly divergent components can only remain coherent in a
network. No other arrangement -- chain, pyramid, tree, circle, hub -- can
contain true diversity working as a whole. This is why the network is
nearly synonymous with democracy or the market.
A dynamic network is one of the few structures that incorporates the
dimension of time. It honors internal change. We should expect to see
networks wherever we see constant irregular change, and we do.
A distributed, decentralized network is more a process than a thing.
In the logic of the Net there is a shift from nouns to verbs. Economists
now reckon that commercial products are best treated as though they were
services. It's not what you sell a customer, its what you do for them.
It's not what something is, it's what it is connected to, what it does.
Flows become more important than resources. Behavior counts.
Network logic is counterintuitive. Say you need to lay a telephone
cable that will connect a bunch of cities; let's make that three for
illustration: Kansas City, San Diego, and Seattle. The total length of
the lines connecting those three cities is 3,000 miles. Common sense
says that if you add a fourth city to your telephone network, the total
length of your cable will have to increase. But that's not how network
logic works. By adding a fourth city as a hub (let's make that Salt Lake
City) and running the lines from each of the three cities through Salt
Lake City, we can decrease the total mileage of cable to 2,850 or 5
percent less than the original 3,000 miles. Therefore the total
unraveled length of a network can be shortened by adding nodes to it!
Yet there is a limit to this effect. Frank Hwang and Ding Zhu Du,
working at Bell Laboratories in 1990, proved that the best savings a
system might enjoy from introducing new points into a network would peak
at about 13 percent. More is different.
On the other hand, in 1968 Dietrich Braess, a German operations
researcher, discovered that adding routes to an already congested
network will only slow it down. Now called Braess's Paradox, scientists
have found many examples of how adding capacity to a crowded network
reduces its overall production. In the late 1960s the city planners of
Stuttgart tried to ease downtown traffic by adding a street. When they
did, traffic got worse; then they blocked it off and traffic improved.
In 1992, New York City closed congested 42nd Street on Earth Day,
fearing the worst, but traffic actually improved that day.
Then again, in 1990, three scientists working on networks of brain
neurons reported that increasing the gain -- the responsivity -- of individual
neurons did not increase their individual signal detection performance,
but it did increase the performance of the whole network to detect
Nets have their own logic, one that is out-of-kilter to our
expectations. And this logic will quickly mold the culture of humans
living in a networked world. What we get from heavy-duty communication
networks, and the networks of parallel computing, and the networks of
distributed appliances and distributed being is Network Culture.
Alan Kay, a visionary who had much to do with inventing personal
computers, says that the personally owned book was one of the chief
shapers of the Renaissance notion of the individual, and that
pervasively networked computers will be the main shaper of humans in the
future. It's not just individual books we are leaving behind, either.
Global opinion polling in real-time 24 hours a day, seven days a week,
ubiquitous telephones, asynchronous e-mail, 500 TV channels, video on
demand: all these add up to the matrix for a glorious network culture, a
remarkable hivelike being.
The tiny bees in my hive are more or less unaware of their colony. By
definition their collective hive mind must transcend their small bee
minds. As we wire ourselves up into a hivish network, many things will
emerge that we, as mere neurons in the network, don't expect, don't
understand, can't control, or don't even perceive. That's the price for
any emergent hive mind.