On Human Networks & Living Biosystems

Increasingly, we live in a world defined by flat networks. Folks like Clay Shirky, Ben Hammersley, and others have observed in great detail how the design patterns of the internet are challenging and changing the landscape of human civilization. So many of our institutions have been built as hierarchical pyramids designed to exert the maximum degree of control over their domains. These top-down management structures have come to define business, government, the military, medicine, education, the family, and knowledge itself. Leaders rise to the top as centralized governors dictating down the chain how things should be, while workers march in step towards execution of their appointed tasks. Such structures were modeled after the clockworks & steam engines of classical mechanics, designed to be precise, rigid, and durable, capable of lasting hundreds of years. These structures informed the defining metaphors of our entire industrialized society.

Computer architecture recapitulated the mechanical metaphor by designating a central processor that assigned & managed tasks bussed out to sub-processors and specialized functional components. In this way the computer became more of a powerful extension of the industrial age rather than a stake in the ground of a new paradigm. While the mechanical metaphor gradually evolved into the computational metaphor which has defined the last two decades, it wasn’t until computers began to follow the model of telecom and began connecting with each other across flat networks that the seed of a biological metaphor began to take hold.

Nature, it seems, does not create very many rigid, top-down control systems. Those are too stiff and inflexible for the dynamics of life. Rather, nature evolves vast horizontal networks that assemble into specialized functions within their environment. For example, the messiest, most distributed organizational structure known – the human brain – does not have a top-tier manager or CPU. There is no executive function within the brain or its mind, though we typically like to think there is. Instead, the brain is a vast & mostly flat hierarchy that is bundled into loosely vertical functional bodies. These functional bodies are themselves existing across a mostly flat horizontal network of interactions. The thalamus receives all inputs and routes them up to higher cortical processing and lower hindbrain autonomic structures, into the amygdala for emotional content and across the hippocampus for memory, then down throughout the body. The processing chain is massively parallel, interconnected, and marked by complex feedback pathways. Mind arises off of these processes in a very ad hoc manner, always shifting, always flexible, and always derived from a mass summation across the network.

Mycelial networks offer another example. When we see mushrooms scattered across a forest floor we’re not seeing individuals. Each mushroom growing from the soil is a fruiting body rising from the underground web-work of mycelia – the skeletal framework of the colony. Some mycelial colonies have been found to have areas extending over 2000 acres making them some of the largest superorganisms on the planet. The pattern suggests mushrooms as terminal nodes and mycelia as the network backbone.

In ecosystems, large predators constitute a form of top-down management but they themselves are part of the predator-prey relationship – a dynamic that must always seek relative equilibrium with the broader network in which it is embedded. Predators do not have a choice to over-consume prey or stockpile & re-sell it to others. Large ocean gyres also suggest a high degree of top-down control by seasonally establishing the engines of hemispheric weather. The North Pacific gyre becomes more active in the Winter of the northern hemisphere, driving the scale & frequency of storms hitting the pacific northwest of the United States. But the North Pacific gyre is an emergent structure that is itself built upon the properties of a nearly-infinite set of factors. It is not a regulatory structure or a governor by intent or design and there is no top-level group of components that determine its next move. It is a super-system derived from innumerable sub-systems.

Most importantly, all biological systems are guided not by top-down governors or control mechanisms but by feedback from the networks in which they are embedded. This is how nature regulates, preserves, and evolves itself towards greater adaptability. There is no fallible ruler driven to resource over-reach and myopic certainty. There is only the ongoing trial & error of embedded growth tempered by continuous communication between & within organisms.

As computers began to connect across the ARPANET, and with the dawning of the visual internet, the CPU evolved away from being specifically a central control system to become a node within a distributed network. This initial shift quickly challenged the established domains of publishing, content creation, intellectual property, and knowledge management while inviting the crowd into a shared virtual space of increasingly global identity & transaction. The advent of social networks established an organizational structure for connecting the human capital of virtuality, making it easier for like-minded people to connect & share & collaborate non-locally, subtly undermining the very notions of borders, statehood, family, and allegiance. Soon after, the mobile revolution has tipped everything on its side and bundled it into a portable device bringing instantaneous global communication & information access to most people on the planet.

The framework was laid for new forms of emergent, non-hierarchical, distributed collaboration & innovation, to both productive & destructive ends. Groups could now form and coordinate around affiliations, interest, and goals in ways that directly challenged the institutional structures monetizing our production & consumption and regulating our behaviors. It has become vastly easier for small organizations to take on multinational interests, whether in business & innovation or in power & politics. The conflicts we see across the world today are, in large part, a symptom of the younger generations leveraging flat network technologies to rise up against the older generations who long ago settled into their legacy hierarchical power structures. To paraphrase Ben Hammersley, the people who are running the world, who are entrusted with our future, are not able to understand the present. They lack the cognitive tools that are a basic part of the Generation C toolkit – the digital natives who grew up with a mobile in their hands and the internet at their fingertips, embedded in specialized networks that span borders and extend identity into the virtual.

The global disruptions that seem to characterize modernity constitute a civilizational correction driven by natural law. The DotCom bubble went through a correction, shedding excess value and pruning the garden of exuberant innovation to favor only the most fit. It was a good thing, if not painful. We witnessed the correction in the housing bubble and will likely see similar corrections in credit & commodities, as well as a painfully positive correction in energy, subsidized and under-valued for so long. The impacts of climate change are a correction imposed upon the legacy model of industrialization & growth by nature itself – the super-system in which all human endeavor is embedded and to which we are ultimately accountable.

The civilization correction is an emergent regulatory mechanism embedded within natural systems forcing our legacy human systems to progressively modify the unsustainable design patterns of our past. The mechanical metaphor & the computational metaphor are necessarily opening to include the biological metaphor. We can see this in every aspect of technology and it is equally emergent across human behavior & social systems. Nanosystems emulate biosystems. Computation & robotics are integrating with neurology & physiology. Individuals are finding agency & empowerment in leaderless multi-cellular collaborations. The built environment is becoming sensory-aware, communicating with itself through discrete feedback mechanisms. It can be argued that the emergence of the internet and of ubiquitous mobile communication & computation is an expression of our natural instincts to move into closer alignment with our environment; to follow the adaptive design patterns of nature in order to find a more sustainable & equitable posture for our species; a thermodynamic need to seek maximum efficiency in energy expenses. And to express a direct intervention programmed by nature itself to nudge the Anthropocene back towards equilibrium.

Such lofty ponderings aside, our world is undoubtedly approaching an inflection point. Everything appears to be upending and it’s all spread out in glorious detail for everyone to see. The feedback loop between humanity and it’s creations – the biological & cybernetic communication among individuals & groups & cultures & organisms & ecosystems – is tightening and getting more & more dense every day, feeding on itself and forcing exceptional degrees of novelty into becoming. It’s frightening & awesome and the Old Guard can barely see it happening right in front of their eyes. The shift may be apocalyptic, a sudden phase change, or an accelerated-but-managed transition… Probably it will be all of these things in differing degrees & locales. However it happens, the emerging paradigm is much more about networks, messaging, feedback, and biology rather than hierarchy, control, power, and mechanization. Nature is the super-system, the ultimate controller enforcing the laws of physics and prescribing the design templates for fitness & adaptation. If we are, as Kevin Kelley suggests, the sex organs of technology, then our technology is born from the natural imperatives coded deeply into our DNA.

[Justin Pickard notes: Biology PhD friend had issues w/ @chris23’s latest (http://bit.ly/e0tJSS), citing hierarchies in social insect colonies, meercats & wolves… Furthermore, some biologists now consider social insect colonies to be superorganisms in their own right; akin to @cascio‘s ecology of mind?

Me: Yes! I considered diving into ants – lot’s of research there. Interesting social structures emerge in higher critters/hives… I’d love to read a rebuttal/extension.]


  1. John Merryman

    I think the foundational issue is that we look at time backwards. I mentioned this to you a year or so ago, but have been developing it further.
    It is not that the present moves along some dimension from past to future, but that the changing configuration of what is, turns the future into the past. Tomorrow become yesterday because the earth rotates.
    Time is an effect of motion, not the basis for it. This makes it much more like temperature, than a spacelike vector.
    Rationality is essentially a time function, the linear projection from cause to effect. Emotion and intuition are more a temperature function, the non-linear dynamic context.
    The left side of the brain is a clock, while the right side is a thermostat. One assesses context, while the other navigates through it. This navigation process creates the illusion of time as a linear progression, but our individual motion is in that larger thermal equilibrium.
    Organisms find it effective to leverage cooperation from the larger context and so tend to band together into groups. This results in a common journey. When this process is adapted to human culture, it requires accepting a common narrative story. Thus the switch from polytheistic religions to monotheistic ones was predicated on replacing the tapestry of narratives common to polytheism with the singular progression of monotheistic narrative. Instead of a tapestry, it becomes a narrative rope and loose ends are trimmed off. Nations also adopt a common narrative to bind their citizens.
    Obviously this process is normal and beneficial, if kept in context, but when the linear progression overwhelms its larger situation, both are harmed.
    For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. To this I would add that the action is linear, while the reaction is non-linear.
    So we need to keep both sides of the coin in perspective.

    Mostly I argue this in physics forums, since it is too foundational to introduce into most other discussions, but since it seriously runs counter to four dimensional spacetime, it mostly gets ignored as well. Given how much of physics and cosmology are built around the idea that space and time are synonymous, just because they can be correlated, using the speed of light, this is understandable. As I point out, we could use ideal gas laws to correlate volume and temperature, but no one sees the humor in spacetemperature.

    I could go onn, but this thread is old and I don’t know if you will see it.

  2. chris arkenberg

    Thanks for your comment, John. Of course, motion is not possible without time, ergo space & time do appear bound and inseparable within any mechanical process. Temperature results from molecular motion which appears, at least classically, to be expressed by vectors. But I’m not a physicist and am cribbing from memory. ;)

    Somewhat tangential, I have my own gut instinct that the relative experience of time is a direct result of an individual’s metabolic rate, or: metabolism is the foundational clock of temporal perception. Hence, smaller critters typically live shorter lives but arguably see the world moving more slowly than we do. Think of using all your strength to quickly swat a fly but the fly just dances out of the way. I maintain this is because we appear to the fly to be moving very slowly based on our relatively slow metabolic rate. Or consider the agility of cats, their short lives and the quickness of their heartbeat.

    Of course, I’m not an evolutionary biologist so these are just minor ramblings… ;)

  3. John Merryman

    That’s the question; does time allow motion, or does motion create time?

    One of the few sites I really discuss physics on is FQXi. It’s a rather diverse bunch, from physics professors to the truly crazy, with quite a few engineers and a lot of the merely interested.

    Recently they ran an article;
    Which contained the following very basic description of the issue of time;

    “The two cornerstones of modern physics, Einstein’s general relativity, which explains the behavior of stars and planets on the largest scales, and quantum mechanics, which governs the interactions of subatomic particles, each paint a different picture of the role of space and time. General relativity weaves space and time together into a four-dimensional fabric that can be warped by matter, while the equations of quantum mechanics use an immutable absolute clock to measure out the regular ticks as time passes. This difference has led some physicists to ponder whether spacetime changes character on different scales.”

    To which I offered up this;

    My point is that while QM doesn’t have an internal time and clock, because it treats everything as simultaneous, when making measurements, scientists measure one simultaneous configuration, then another. The consequence is that they inadvertently reintroduce Newton’s absolute flow of time. On the other hand, as I keep saying, if we treat the quantum state as the constant, then it is the configuration which changes, thus it is a flow from future to past. This emergent time is mathematically relativistic, without having to propose blocktime. It does this by separating space from time, so that while space is a constant dimension, regulating the relationship between energy and mass, time is an effect of these relationships and entirely relative to them.

    The funny thing is that it really doesn’t generate much conversation. No one can disprove it, but no one is willing to accept something so basic. I know there are a lot of big egos in physics, but you would think someone would take the time to tear it apart, as they like to do to any idea they can. Otherwise you would think there would be some curiosity to explore the idea. Nope.

    As for the point about temperature, I do often get the response that it is just molecular activity, but consider the effect of standing in a pool of highly radioactive water. I think it safe to say the result would amount to a burn.
    On the other end of the conceptual scale, economic statistics are often referred to as a temperature reading of the economy, because they are a scalar of non-linear activity. Much like the molecules swirling around in our every moment.

    Minor ramblings on my part as well. I seem to be better at entertaining myself than others, but I guess it beats the other way around.


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