Deborah Gordon | The Most Important Connection In Any Network Is The Local

Deborah Gordon cuts to the heart of how all biological systems work, including us:

We live enmeshed in networks. The internet, a society, a body, an ant colony, a tumour: they are all networks of interactions, among people, ants or cells — aggregates of nodes or locations linked by some relation. The power of networks is in their local connections. All networks grow, shrink, merge or split, link by link. How they function and change depends on what forms, or disrupts, the connections between nodes. The internet dominates our lives, not because it is huge, but because each of us can make so many local links. Its size is the result, not the cause, of its impact on our communication.

Nowhere is the decisive influence of local interactions easier to see than in ants, which I study. The local is all an ant knows. A colony operates without central control, based on a network of simple interactions among ants. These are local by necessity, because an ant cannot detect anything very far away. Most ant species can’t see, and all of them rely on smell, which they do with their antennae. The important interactions are when ants touch antennae, smelling each other, or the ground, smelling chemicals deposited by other ants.

The shifting network of brief interactions transforms a group of ants, each unable to assess any global purpose, into the orderly chaos that is ant-colony behaviour.

Or human behavior: we are more like ants than we are not.

Think of this analogy when considering how people communicate or act differently in groups of different size or density:

They [Argentinian ants] adjust their search paths to density. When there are many ants searching, each ant turns around a lot, almost at random. If there are only a few ants, they walk in straighter lines. The cue to density seems to be brief antennal contacts with other ants. The apparent rule is: ‘If I meet another ant often, I can turn around more. If I don’t, I have to walk in a straighter line.’ These simple interactions between pairs of ants function in the aggregate to adjust the scale of the network to the optimal size for the number of ants available.

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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