Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Stigmergy: why engineering educators reinvent the wheel?

I never thought I'd say this, but I wish I could sleep. Insomnia is a bummer sometimes.

Fascinating new word today - stigmergy, courtesy Mark Elliott. I adore his intro paper on the topic.

Stigmergy is a method of indirect communication in a self-organizing emergent system where its individual parts communicate with one another by modifying their local environment.
It might - just might - be a clue to how to explain a phenomena in engineering education I've been noticing but didn't have a name to call. Why do engineering educators reinvent the wheel all the time? Why do they keep trying the same "innovative" experiments, barely publish those experiments they do, spend so little time learning about the context, history, and prior work in the engineering education - or even just the education - field? (I stereotype and overgeneralize here, of course.)

Maybe they are, unconsciously, counting on stigmergy to be the solution. It's the "throw your hands in the air and give up" solution to the cat-herding problem. If a lot of smart people strike out independently, something will happen, like Mark's paper says: disparate, distributed,
ad hoc contributions could lead to the emergence of the
largest collaborative enterprises the world has seen. However, is it
correct to call these enterprises “collaboration”?

Right. That sometimes becomes the problem. If something happens, it stays localized because of lack of clear communication lines. If something happens, it takes a while to realize it, because people are so busy doing that they don't poke their heads up to "be meta" often enough. Again, stereotyping, overgeneralizing, exaggerating.

Stigmergy assumes a critical mass - or rather, a critical balance of concentration - of people and action. Too little space, and any action crystallizes the mass; people don't feel like they have room to step out and breathe and explore independently, there's too much at stake at every turn. Too much space, and you lose the ripple effect potential; you get affected by the actions of others, but not with enough speed or frequency to be able to pass it on enough to make a difference.

It's the same reason why you should hold classes (and speeches and meetings) in as small a physical space as possible. And it's fascinating to watch communities grow into (and shrink out of) the spaces they've built for themselves, a trail of just-in-time creation (supply-chain style), followed by wikipages and mailing lists... or houses, cities, land, clubs (I think we all know this happens for clubs at Olin), etc lying fallow, dying through selective neglect, ossifying and remaining as muted calcifications on the landscape. Which the next generation, of course, blithely ignores (or thinks they do - they're subtly affected by it nevertheless).

And now, the reason why I like Mark's paper so much:

The following represents some of the current findings of the author’s PhD research on and around collaboration and stigmergic collaboration, and comprises the core components of the theoretical framework guiding this article:

  1. Collaboration is dependent upon communication, and communication is a network phenomenon.
  2. Collaboration is inherently composed of two primary components, without either of which collaboration cannot take place: social negotiation and creative
  3. Collaboration in small groups (roughly 2-25) relies upon social negotiation to evolve and guide its process and creative output.
  4. Collaboration in large groups (roughly 25-n) is enabled by stigmergy.
My gut and experience tell me this is probably true. The scientist in me inserts the <em> tags around "probably." I wonder how we could find out. I'm watching Mark's research with interest.

A related word I was enamored by, several months back (thanks to the E.O. Wilson book of the same title) is consilience. Ah, meta stuff. It feels good to embrace this tendency instead of fighting it (and laugh ironically at my old sometime-handle of "metamel" from years ago before I standardized to "mchua").

1 comment:

L33tminion said...

Collaboration in small groups (roughly 2-25) relies upon social negotiation to evolve and guide its process and creative output. Collaboration in large groups (roughly 25-n) is enabled by stigmergy.

To put it another way and to paraphrase Quinn, tribes don't need to rely on programs.