Ian B on the Crapness of Ants

Note: This began life as one of Ian B’s many attacks on Kevin Carson, but is surely good enough to be made a posting in its own right SIG

On the Crapness of Ants
Ian B

An ant colony isn’t a very good model. This might be an admission that I’ll regret, revealing as it does that I’m a bit of a sad act, but back in the early 90s I was unemployed and living back at my mum’s and, rather than get a job, I developed a selection of strange hobbies. One of which was studying the ants in the back garden. I watched them a lot, and read lots of books and, my mum was like, “get a job you lazy bastard” and I was like, “but then who will care for the ants?”

Ants are crap. They muddle through. They aren’t self organising as such. They are very simple robots, with very simple rules programmed in, and they are inflexible. They wage “wars” on other colonies, and some of them are building a wall to keep the enemy out, and others are busy tearing it down again, because they have no group coordination. The left hand of the group has no idea of what the right hand is doing. They only survive because the enemy colony are equally crap. They make World War I look like a masterpiece of organisational cunning.

You can see this with small numbers of ants. One finds some food and starts dragging it vaguely back towards the colony. Then another latches onto it, and chances are it’ll pull in the opposite direction. Neither is aware of the other ant. If they’re lucky, 5 ants will pull one way and the 3 pulling the other way will get dragged along with the wasp thorax or whatever it is.

There’s one species, there were several colonies of it in the garden, that builds little chimneys around their ant holes whenever it rains. Nobody knows why. It’s too late to stop rain pouring down the holes, and the chimneys just dry out and blow away. It’s probably a remnant behaviour from some previous evolutionary state.

Ants are often described by romantics as a group intelligence, all magically coordinated like a well oiled machine. They’re more of a group unintelligence, coordinated like a well oiled Scotsman.

Really, once you really know ants, in a way that only a dole scrounger who is bored out of his mind can know ants, you realise they’re a load of rubbish.

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14 responses to “Ian B on the Crapness of Ants

  1. I wouldn’t characterize this as an “attack” on Carson. IanB simply pointed out that ants might not be the best example of the kind of network Carson was describing.

    In a later comment, IanB even threw in a useful conclusion from the ants premise about that kind of network, and didn’t seem to be attacking the stigmergic network comment itself (although I suspect he sees “capitalism” as that kind of network, and would on that point of course be in disagreement with Carson).

  2. Thomas is correct; it wasn’t attacking Carson, it was saying that ants are a poor example of what I thought Carson was trying to convey. Humans, and many other more advanced creaturs, are goal directed, and have some degree of capacity for an overview of a situation, and learn from experience. Ants do not; they are genuinely just little robots. So whereas humans in a “stigmergy” will modify behaviours on the basis of experience, ants cannot. They just do what they do because that’s what they do.

    If I have understood this stigmergy correctly, I see the free market elements of our current sneer quotes capitalist system to be “stigmergic”. It is debatable how much of it works on the market principle, but I would not share the Carson/C4SS view that because it is a poisoned, partial market that it has no free market elements at all. Various parts of the market are variously free; for instance, my business, drawing rude cartoons, is largely free in the sense that it gets no government subsidies, nor favours, and they only intervene in it in the hope of destroying it. I characterise such a market as a “persecuted market”. I don’t know where persecuted markets fit into the Carsonite worldview. But anyway, in terms of the trade element, it is much more free than, say, the property market. So it is all matters of degree.

    Anyway, I did for a while back then become quite fascinated with ants. I have to say, it was much more interesting than working for a living.

  3. “the Carson/C4SS view that because it is a poisoned, partial market that it has no free market elements at all.”

    I certainly wouldn’t argue that it has no free market elements at all.

    If I had to characterize the Carson/C4SS argument on that general topic, it would go something like this:

    To the extent that the state privileges certain economic actors (“poisoning” the market), the market is distorted and becomes less free in the aggregate, and those privileged economic actors in particular benefit more than they would in a free market.

    Those privileged actors use some of the excess/distortionary profits made possible by state privilege to obtain more state privilege, making the market even less free in the aggregate and benefiting themselves more in particular, in a sort of cycle or “ratchet” phenomenon where each cycle or turn of the ratchet leaves the state-privileged better off and the market less free.

    So, state privilege for particular economic actors is a very bad gift that keeps on giving until any free market elements eventually become mere asides or remnants. Whether or not we’ve reached that point yet is obviously open to argument.

  4. I don’t fault anything Ian says about ants as such — particularly in light of his followup in the comments here. Ants were the original model of stigmergy only in the most basic sense of coordinating independent actions through reference to a background medium rather than through an administrative or social process. Because we’re rational, utility-maximizing beings, we do stigmergy a lot better than ants.

  5. “The Crapness of Ants” is the best piece of spontaneous commenting on this blog for a long time. I’m pleased it’s been elevated to a posting. More of this please, from all of you buggers out there, if you feel the urge!

    We’ll have anybody, who wants to make good points in a funny, clever and thoughtful way. More please!

  6. Well, I think the lesson I’ve learned from this is that if I want to be popular on the internets&tm; I need to spend less time attacking Reformation Protestantism, and more time attacking ants.

  7. I for one welcome our new ant overlords.

  8. I think I want Ian to continue to do his “insuper, iter, iterque iter! Sit Carthago delenda!” act. Afetr some long time, he has made a convert in me that this is the root of the problem we face, regarding the illogical persistence of otherwise highly-cultured and deeply educated civilisations, in continuing to _elect to_ want to have their noses rubbed in Stalinist shit.

  9. Oh brilliant, now apparently I’ve got to write my comments in bloody Latin. You’re a harsh taskmaster, David Davis.

    …sic transit gloria blogi

  10. Julie near Chicago

    Ian, thanks for reminding me of this. (I lost track of where your recent reminder is. :( )

    I saw it and enjoyed when you first posted it, especially since I had also dreamed up the Ant Farm Model. (Great Minds, all that.)

    It’s interesting to me that in reading it I feel as though I’m reading the first paragraphs of an SF story, where the stage plunking you down into the middle of everyday reality–only NOT–is set. That first paragraph especially is brilliant writing.

    May I agree with David Davis: More please!

    –J. :)

  11. Julie,

    That’s the funny thing about the internet, you never know what people will like. I’ve must’ve written millions of words on liberty, economics, gender issues, politics and so on, but what do people like? A posting on the crapness of ants, and my re-imagining of the lyrics to Dana’s All Kinds Of Everything.

  12. Julie near Chicago


    Thanks for the link. I see what you mean. (I think. *g*)

    She does do a lovely job. As for the lyrics, if James Joyce can do stream-of-consciousness, why not popular-song writers?