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Out of Control
Chapter 2: HIVE MIND

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 science.

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 round.

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 evolution.

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 signals.

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.