Thinking about colonies and ants and the web…

I was reading Ant colony based hybrid optimization for data clustering, by Amarendra Nath Sinha and started thinking about ants and web and stuff…

A lonely ant is a very fragile being. Their power, just like us, lies in communicative action. I use the term communicative action very loosely, this because in ant colonies there isn’t much argumentative deliberating… there is doing with a greater purpose: the survival of the colony.

No real future

I never did like the term colony. I was born in one, Angola. A colony puts itself in an ideological position where the world out there is brutal and savage, and peace can only be found within the colony or by mimicking the colony’s precepts.

Just like ant hills, colonies have no real future in themselves. They are a transient state, bound to fail, only to see some of its members survive and create a new colony. To me they have always felt like a vehicle for a sort of semi-protected evolution, one where users don’t have to mingle with the harsh nature which surrounds us all.

Web 2.0 when it first came about felt like a colony

It had its own aesthetics, ideology, usability rules, business logic… It felt like a bunch a people chanting a mantra in some distant shore, “if you obey it you will thrive amongst us” kind of thing. And the colony shall prosper and take over Adobe Flash territory with their awful intros, M.I.A.s website… It felt like everyone was building applications like boats, all alike, all sailing towards the same colony.

Colonies and the web

Colonies are a very physical reality. An ant colony has its nest from which the workers depart in search of food. When doing so they create trails of pheromones. Upon reaching food they return via the same trail reinforcing it as a good trail that others should follow. The more go down that trail, the stronger the pheromone scent, the faster the food is carried back to the nest.  A mix of positive and negative feedback to regulate behaviour. These are groups of individuals who survive by plundering what lies beyond their borders.

Hyperlinked reality is not very trail friendly. Folks just beam themselves into a location, period. Via, @someone… that’s how we identify trails, references… but we are really just interested in the goodies.

Google, Facebook… big colony regulators need trails, need to understand where we come from, what we consider good food. They need to because we have become their commodities. As we share parts of ourselves with one another in hyperlinked trails of fainting serendipity, Google is checking our cookies, just like ants in a pic-nic.


Ants don’t eat the leafs and bugs they hunt, they just gather these so as to grow fungi which they then feed on. They don’t consume their experiences, their interest is the byproduct of the experience.

We are all broadcasting. Broadcasting to each other. I started this thought process with colonies, and little ants collecting food, and in the process realised we have grown to somehow produce our own food and relish in it. We package pieces of ourselves.

A great part of the Web 2.0 colonies I alluded to in the beginning have mostly become tin factories. They allow us to package our experiences if we use their services. But unlike ants we are not using those experiences to harvest something more essential, we are just eating from the tin.

If we were ants what would we do with the experiences we gather, what could we harvest with those? As experiential beings, if we were to bury our packaged experiences could we source some essential liquid? Yes, it sounds a little crazy but there is something in this and it goes beyond data mining.


So we are becoming more aware of goodie sources via our social networks, but are we working for a colony? Is the colony our primary social network and do we gain social capital when we find food for it? Or has it become the case where if we don’t bring back food, to everyone else we stop existing?

We do want more of our friends to find that food source we have found… Other ants who follow other ants…  if we follow the right ant we are more likely to stumble upon a nice goodie. Is this true? What if an ant were to follow an elephant? It would be bound to discover something far more interesting and therefore more likely to become a social broadcaster rather than a mere follower.


In an ant world it’s simple, any ant that finds a good food source starts a broadcast chain reaction as she wanders into the colony dragging a part of a rodent carcass, in effect the chain reaction is started at the point of contact with the dead rodent or shortly thereafter. In human terms this also holds true but because our social networks are much more heterogenous (different tastes) the likelihood of people re-broadcasting what I am holding is much lower, unless obviously it’s a dead rodent.

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