Yesterday’s post ended up mostly being a recollection of my lifelong affiliation with nerd culture, and why I’m trying to move beyond it today. It was a political and ethical post about how nerd culture has become increasingly identified with resentful grievance and hatred instead of creativity and openness.
About how a community of people that considers itself a home for freaks and weirdos became a pit of racism and misogyny. I couldn’t help but meditate on that sad transition as I wrote my explanation* for why I’ve come to presume that geeks and nerds hide horrible, hateful beliefs about everyone around them.
* Which is not an apology for stereotyping that guy on the subway, because I’m not sorry at all.
I should start from its agency. That’s the toughest part of swarm intelligence to wrap your head around. We’re accustomed to thinking of intelligence as being wrapped up with self-consciousness, with intentionality.
That is, we think of intelligence as having a direction of attention – at least an ability to direct and focus your attention. An intelligence might not focus their attention all the time – consider when you’re in a deep sleep, or addled by severe sickness like heart attack symptoms or heatstroke, or close to an overdose of some dissociative drug like ketamine.
That’s our intentionality. Imagine an intelligence without intentionality – you’re awake and alert to what’s around you, able to act and react to the affects of your environment. But you have no focus at all. That’s a swarm.
And we usually think of intelligence as being aware of itself. You have some sense of identity. You have a memory of notable past events, and of your close companions among other intelligences – pets, bosses, friends, the older woman who’s always on the evening shift at Tim Horton’s.
You remember these relationships, and you have some ability to reflect on yourself – maybe strategize for future plans, maybe wonder about your place in the world or the universe. That’s fundamentally what self-consciousness does.
Now imagine an intelligence without any of that memory and identity. You might have immense power, speed, have an incredibly complicated set of abilities that emerge from the spontaneous movement of your individual parts.
That’s the intelligence of the swarm.
But what are all those individual parts? What makes a swarm intelligence different from the unfocussed, unreflective spontaneous processes that cause intelligent life itself?
What are those processes that literally make me and you and everyone we know? Here are some examples. Embryo development. Everyday metabolism. Cell division. Because a swarm is different from these other spontaneous processes.
The parts of all those unfocussed, unreflective spontaneous processes are all themselves unfocussed, unreflective spontaneous processes.
Who are these intelligent creatures? A swarm could be composed of viruses, locusts, social media trolls. Or it could be composed of fish, migrating caribou in the middle of a long daytime run through the tundra. The cars and their drivers who manifest a massive traffic jam when one guy hits his breaks for a moment three kilometres up.
A swarm body acts and has intelligence of a kind because it formed and moves in the world, always in response to the affects of its environment. It has that much unity – unity of motion and response. Very simple kinds of action. A collection of intelligent animals move together and constitute a swarm’s parallel of a very simple bacteria.