Stigmergy in the biological world is about the interplay between organisms and the nonliving structures they build and inhabit. Stigmergy in computing is about the interplay between computers and the persistent data and communication structures they build and use to coordinate their behavior. Many such structures, e.g., data-bases and registries, are designed explicitly to organize cooperative computing behavior. Yet others designed for one purpose have turned out to evolve organizing roles quite different from the intent of their creators. The most notable example is Twitter which originated with short cellphone "sideband" status messages between phones and cell towers. Those short messages were co-opted to support "texting" which, in turn, evolved into Twitter.
Digital stigmergy structures are data models populated and modified
a distributed community of "clients" that also interrogate the current
state of the data. The shared data supports emergent
organization, or cooperation, in otherwise independent entities.
Familiar examples within single computers, in addition to file-systems,
In multicellular computing, stigmergy structures provide a persistent and reliable means of communication between individual machines and a reliable way to store the persistent data, i.e., the cues required for the collaborating group of digital entities to survive and grow. Familiar examples in corporate intranets and in the Internet include databases, file servers, DNS servers, email servers, Web servers, and all manner of routers and other communications structures. Consider for example a customer database for a corporation. Its model is typically a relational data model of customers, their orders, and their accounts. It is populated and read by sales personnel, the shipping dept., accounts receivable personnel, and perhaps to some extent by the customers themselves if the company provides a Web interface for orders.
The most economically important examples of networked stigmergy systems are the many computerized financial trading systems. The most familiar are the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, and Europe's BATS but there are other much faster specialized exchanges. Financial exchanges support global trading in financial instruments such as stocks, bonds, options, commodities, futures, etc. They depend upon large high-speed databases into which traders insert trading orders for securities. Trades are consummated with or without human help (most often without). High-speed trading systems can execute trades in less than a millisecond and they are driven by computerized decision algorithms based upon the most recent trades. The data supporting the trades are, of course, stigmergy structures. Each computerized exchange uses its own structure. Yet they must interact to some extent. The May 6, 2010 "Flash Crash" market meltdown, where the markets lost $1 trillion within fifteen minutes, apparently resulted from unforeseen interactions within and between these automated exchanges.
Novel stigmergy structures have emerged in the World Wide Web. These include widely distributed data in peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing networks such as Bit Torrent, in Facebook and EBay, and in "Edge-of-the-Web" page caches such as those provided by Akamai and Google's internal replicated caches. The largest Internet stigmergy structure is Google's distributed crawler index paired with its page-rank data and AdSense ad-server system.
Computing stigmergy structures are fundamentally different from biological stigmergy structures in that they occupy a world of bits rather than atoms. Since physical stigmergy structures must obey the laws of 3-dimensional space, they provide coordination of location, shape and proximity and they prevent interpenetration. The location and shape of physical/biological stigmergy structures determine to a great degree what sorts of interactions can take place between the participating organisms. In contrast, stigmergy structures in computing systems are embedded in various network topologies determined by rules that provide logical structure to the various data repositories. So in most cases we can only imagine rather than see the "shape" of digital stigmergy structures. There are some exceptions. The stigmergy provided by simulated 3-D environments, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft create a simulated visible world. And short range peer-to-peer wireless interaction, e.g., BlueTooth connections within a public place such as a bar or nightclub can induce localized stigmergy structures such as digital " Grafitti Walls" accessible by cellphone texting. Grafitti walls become stigmergy structures in social gatherings where the physical stigmergy structure of the social gathering blends with the digital stigmergy structure of the wireless communication.
Most carefully constructed complex computing systems are designed to support persistent human organizations such as corporations, universities, or governmental agencies. Corporations are not only a type of collective “self,” recognized in law, but also are a “self” organized by stigmergy. The people in the company create external structures including buildings (offices, factories, warehouses, etc.), equipment (ships, trucks, milling machines, desks, copiers, and computers), records (the “books,”, the contracts and other documents), and persistent financial structures such as bank accounts and shares of stock and bonds issued by or owned by the corporation. Increasingly today the most important structure in a corporation is not the bricks and mortar, but the IT infrastructure – the physical and logical networks (VPNs), databases, and applications that manage and transform business-critical information.
Because an organization's digital stigmergy structures are vital to its function their security is vital to the survival and competitive strength of the organization. Therefore, the security of these structures has become the major focus of IT organizations as they attempt to protect the computing portion of the corporate "self."
“Selfness” in computing systems is often misconstrued to be about the identity of the connected leaf devices and the identity of authorized users. Yet the identity of a given machine can’t be the determining factor since machines can be lost, stolen or compromised by a virus or worm. Nor can the identity of the person be the determining factor since people move from company to company, they forget their passwords, they leave their passwords around on sticky-notes, or they choose trivial easily guessed passwords.
For these and other reasons, we are beginning to recognize that the perimeter of an institutional network, i.e., the collection of PCs, iPads/Pods/Phones and other personal devices used by employees, is ultimately indefensible. Moreover, the perimeter is also indefinable because it intersects with supplier and customer systems. And the corporate employees themselves work remotely, sometimes in a disconnected mode. Yet, just inside the fragmenting perimeter lies the core of the corporate infrastructure, i.e., the definable and defensible IT infrastructure comprised of the network, databases, and institutional application servers. That core stigmergy structure is the corporate IT “self.” The fundamental job of the staff in an IT organization is to maintain this vital corporate computing infrastructure. They play a role similar to ants maintaining the nest, or bees maintaining the hive.
Contact: sburbeck at mindspring.com
Last revised 6/12/2012