26 Feb 2009

During the talk of Giovanna Di Marzo Serugendo I learned a new term: Stigmergy.

It stems from biology (from 1959, actually) and describes self-organizing systems in which the next actions are determined by the state of the environment. This way, agents don't even need to have a memory or communicate. They leave their environment in some state, and whoever wants to do further work there knows how to go on.

There are to ways to do this:

  1. Leave a marker, for example the pheromone traces of ants carrying information on where to go.
  2. Leave the work in a state. The wasps, for example, build hives in hexagons. Whatever the actual state of the hive is, it is obviously defined by some simple rules which every wasp knows where to build the next hexagon.

Systems like this have a property that I think I remember from autopoietic systems: The single actors are not needed for the system to survive (since their memory or their communication holds no existential information).

I noticed in a discussion with Gabriel yesterday that this is a vision of professional programmer teams:

In programming, the number of hidden assumtions rises all the time and code that isn't reviewed to be readable most likely does what it should, but it becomes more and more unclear for other humans what the code intends to do as it grows. The current mantra is top let the code be so clean, documented and self-describing that any developer can quit the team without taking the whole project down with him. This 'clean-code' mentality requires a lot of discipline by developers and adherence to standards.

These standards develop during discussions in the programming community. The tendency to demanding stable systems makes the individual programmer less important. And they help making this possible by themselves. Fascinating.

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  on26 Feb 2009 - 19:05 fromGabriel Pickard wwwhttp://gpickard.wordpress.com
I could see that this is a really important principle in our lives. Actually I am just encountering the absolute opposite in our project-work. Dirty little hacking. It's amazing how code can become unreadeably to me within the time I need to get something to drink, a few cookies and have a short conversation, while someone else hacks away. ;) Am looking forward to integrating code tomorrow. ;) A very nice historical example that I once heard of that type of people-leaving resilience was the Templar Order. I heard they once got threatened by the Assasini muslim sect that they would kill their leader. The Assasini had achieved quite a position of power by blackmailing important leaders with threats of murder (they were kind of arabic ninjas). The Templars told them just to go ahead; if they killed one knight, another would take his place the next day.
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