Stigmergencies

It may not look much like an ant hill, but I’m willing to argue that this scene is a prime example of stigmergy. Each broker scurrying around the trading floor is in their own way a dutiful scavenger, each LED stock ticker a blinding chemical signal.

Markets as an institution are an example of stigmergy, I think, in that they allow buyers and sellers to communicate through prices. When we were talking about it several weeks ago, it occurred to me that they perfectly meet Heather Marsh’s definition of a system in which a “trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent.” In the classes I’ve had to take for my economics major, my professors are always sure to stress the ‘magic of the market’—how it allows for the expression of needs and capabilities on a societal level. For anyone not familiar with the process, it centers around a graph that looks something like this:

According to the accepted theory of the market, prices are determined by a kind of negotiation between what buyers demand at each price and what sellers are willing in turn to supply them. Where those two functions meet is where the magic truly happens: that’s the hypothetical “market-clearing” price where everyone gets what they want and equilibrium is achieved. When buyers decide they want more at each price, however, economic theory argues that they express this through a rightward shift in their demand function and an increase in prices. Suppliers see this increased price (this “trace left in the environment”) without ever actually having to meet a single customer and, motivated by the opportunity to make some money, start producing more to meet this demand. Supply then increases until the equilibrium price is reached once more. Everybody (theoretically) wins.

I’ve dealt with markets quite a bit over the past three years at Geneseo, and I think I’ve come to regard them roughly how the Oankali regard our species: they contain within them a terrible power. They’ve evolved over years and years to become capable of achieving such awesome feats, but they do so at an unspeakable cost. They build skyscrapers, monuments—even nations—but they can never overcome the fundamental flaw that functions as their engine. In fact, they’ve put extraordinary effort into hiding it from view. But try as they might, markets can never fully erase the ways in which they obscure personal connections. They will always operate by turning people into things and by turning things into numbers. In doing so, they facilitate the exploitation of sentient creatures by hiding the harm done to them from view. In serving as a method of indirect communication between buyers and sellers, they will always reduce our ability to see the life in one another.

And I worry, as scholars and revolutionaries begin looking toward it as a solution for our political plights, that stigmergy will also never be able to overcome this reduction of life’s value. I worry that (like my title suggests) stigmergy will always tend towards crisis. We’ve talked throughout the course about how sighted people are trapped in the “regime of the visual;” it can be used to identify social in-groups and it can form powerful personal connections. For everyone regardless of ability, I think empathy is formed through the feeling of perceiving someone or something else as a “being.” Widespread empathy is something that I view as fundamental to a more ethical society, but stigmergy poses a serious risk to the formation of empathy by obscuring the perception of beings. As the removal of our humanity and empathy does in the market, I worry that stigmergy may allow for people to make decisions without regard for their effect on the beings around them.

I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of the things we’ve read from Heather Marsh as she makes her case for stigmergy. I don’t disagree that representative democracy is a seriously flawed form of government. I don’t disagree that a better system would allow everyone to have an equal say on issues that affect them, to exit the system any time they want, or to enjoy respect and consideration. I just don’t know if I agree with her in thinking that stigmergy can guarantee that better system. As markets show, it’s already governed us for several hundred years through the capitalist world-system, and I don’t necessarily like what it’s left us with. It seems to me that, if anything, the best way to ensure that better system would be to increase the amount of direct communication that we experience rather than decrease it.

I have good news, bad news, and good news. The good news is that we’re all lucky enough to live in the most widely and directly connected society that we have any record of on this or any planet. We have the technology to communicate directly—to form a connection—with just about anyone in the world if we try hard enough. We have the ability to tell any story, film it so well that it might have been real, and then show it to anybody with access to the internet. Now more than ever, the technology exists to maximize the personal relationships that exist between people and between groups of people everywhere. The bad news is that this technology is beholden to markets and to the people with the power to most influence those markets. As was previously discussed, markets obscure personal connection; when communication technology is at the market’s mercy, it’s often used to do the same. The material components of our communication infrastructure are built at the expense of wildlife and the rights of people in peripheral or semi-peripheral nations while the communication itself is used to relay selective messages that the market demands or else messages intentionally designed to manipulate us. It is used to achieve a purpose utterly opposed to the potential good it could do because of market forces.

The good news is that there is absolutely no reason it need stay that way.

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