Evolving By Network


“But somewhere, beyond Space and Time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there, they trust, there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind.” Rupert Brooke, Heaven

When embarking into unfamiliar territory, the wise and prudent will prefer to consult those who have gone before

So, if networks had been put to use for billions of years before humans “invented” them, wouldn’t it be foolish not to seek guidance from their creator?

It isn’t a rhetorical question…

Nature’s Network Architects

Research into the behavior of Slime molds has raised questions about the real nature of intelligence. (See: How Brainless Slime Molds Redefine Intelligence – Scientific American). Despite lacking a central nervous system, their methods are able to outclass those of more traditionally intelligent organisms.

So what exactly are they?

Slime molds are networked colonies of single-celled protists – a sort of catch-all biology classifier for oddball organisms.

Their collectives have been thriving since the earliest days of life on earth, through an extremely effective set of techniques based on mass collaboration and universal peer-to-peer open-communication.

As a species, humans have begun to notice the merits of this approach…

Simple Rules, Complex Behavior

Slime molds function collectively because each individual acts and communicates through a simple set of routines. Outside of a collaborative network, many of these techniques might be useless – but are stunningly effective in this context.

Watch Physarum Polycephalum navigating a maze – (Video):

•The colony extends its tendrils to explore every available path.
•Tendrils that hit dead ends are retracted, redirecting resources to new paths.
•Abandoned paths are “remembered” with a left-behind residue.
•The location of food is passed along through an open message to the collective.
•The “mass” follows the message, migrating in the proper direction.
•Nutrients are shared with all participants as the search continues.
•Colonies can form multiple-node networks, each broadcasting their status and needs.

The results of this simple approach are impressive, for a “dumb” organism…

Atsushi Tero of Hokkaido University performed an experiment using a map of Tokyo, with food sources placed at the major population hubs. The slime mold released onto the map not only found all of the food sources, but the network of paths it found between them was strikingly similar to the actual paths of Tokyo’s train system. (See: Slime Mold Simulates Tokyo Rail Network)

Andrew Admatzky, Professor Of Unconventional Computing at the University of West England repeated these results – this time with the U.S. Interstate System. Follow-on experiments have demonstrated a remarkable ability to maintain paths of least cost between nodes; The pathing efficiency of a colony is often indistinguishable from the work of the best human engineers. (See: If The Interstate System Were Designed By A Slime Mold)

Under the right circumstances, specimens can even form logic gates – suggesting possible applications in biological computing and smart building materials. If you look at a picture of a slime mold in expansion mode, you’ll notice an all-too-familiar shape… (See: The Avenues Of Exodus)



Individual, Yet Collective

The slime mold provides insight into networked organizational methods – consider the implications:

•Goals are collective, yet participation is voluntary – competition is integral.
•Pursuit of multiple solutions in parallel – with convergence on successful ones.
Open-source software already uses this kind of collaboration – where else could this approach apply?
•Dead ends are a part of innovation – rewarding constructive failure is important (not all failure).
•Individual goals and initiative coexist with a larger collective framework.
•Politically speaking, the networked approach is neither socialist nor capitalist – it can flexibly use elements of either.

The power of a network lies in its ability to quickly channel individual participation into a collective effort (See: The Rise Of Emergent Networks). Effective networks will do this cheaply; Adaptive ones will adjust dynamically to the environment. Slime molds are the masters of this – a colony can take immediate action in response to any good reason. The individual that discovers the situation broadcasts a message – and the collective springs into action.

By contrast, traditional human collectives – hierarchies – survive by centralizing the means of agency under a small number of individuals (See: Breaking Down The Pyramids That Govern). These authorities give direction and permission for tasks performed by everyone else. Independent action is often punished – those at the bottom are expected to wait for leaders to make a decision.

Now, take a moment and compare these two models – which sounds closer to your experiences on the Internet?

If we take a step back, we can see that online communities function as giant slime molds of sorts…

This wasn’t really by design or intention – it came as a consequence of suddenly finding ourselves with the ability to collaborate with millions of others at low cost. Humans have never been here before – we are the first generation to ever experience any of this. It’s awesome, and a little bit frightening.

It begs the question – what will we do with it?

Unlike slime molds, we haven’t had billions of years to learn – we’re discovering our methods as we go. We’ve become very good at certain, simple forms of collaboration (such as sharing funny cat pictures), but our past reliance on hierarchies has left many of us falling back on them out of instinct – whenever serious work needs to be done.

We don’t fully understand how to operate in this paradigm, yet; As a result, we see an unprecedented clash of old and new ideas…

A Battle of Paradigms

Traditional institutions have found themselves mostly without effective means for dealing with decentralization. The FBI spent their first four years investigating Anonymous – believing that it had a cohesive leadership and large amounts of funding. A now-infamous announcement declared that the leaders had been caught, and the whole organization had been dismantled – yet it’s still just as present as ever.

Those who understand what Anonymous really is, just laugh. These efforts equivalent to poking a slime mold with a stick to find its brain – becoming frustrated and angry when you find nothing.

“It’s got to be in there somewhere!”

The shortcomings of the old guard were laid bare for all the world to see in 2008, when the Conficker Worm smashed through the best efforts of multiple governments to contain it. To this day, many agencies still ban USB drives – a remnant of this incident. Were it not for a group of skilled civilian volunteers – who were able to think like their adversary – the results could have been much worse. (See: Pyramids, Networks, And The Emergent Weapons Of Cyber War)

The yet-unrealized-potential of this paradigm shift is massive. This will be remembered as a pivotal moment in human history, and an ever greater number of people are beginning to sense it.

The effects have begun to emerge from the back corners of the internet –  and into the realms of real technology and business…

The Rise Of Distributed Business

We’ve seen the rise of some of the world’s first Distributed Autonomous Corporations (DACs) – decentralized, voluntary organizations operating via network, enabled by low entry and exit costs. It’s a business approach that avoids the costly social traps of large hierarchies, allowing innovation and results to take center stage over personal politics.

One of the world’s first DAC’s – Bitcoin – had a landmark year in 2013, finding adoption with several major corporations at the tail end of a wild ride of fevered speculation.

Mainstream financiers – who once scoffed at the notion – are beginning to acknowledge that this concept is here to stay. The governments of the world have been forced to take notice – the IRS recently issued tax guidelines for it.

Bitcoin isn’t likely to be the last success of its kind. Though more cryptocurrencies are sure to follow – this concept is already being taken to the next level.

Ethereum – representing the second generation of decentralized blockchain technologies- offers a flexible environment for programming distributed applications.

It can facilitate:

•Remote business automation and management.
•Smart, self-evaluating and executing contracts.
•Distributed computing and storage services.
•Smart property and ownership transfer without third parties.
•Decentralized exchange and accounting.

Closing Thoughts

As these concepts find their way into mainstream commerce, some old entities will adapt themselves accordingly – others will fall behind – and some may be wiped out.

The early days of cyber war showed the chaos that adaptive network entities can create. Now, many more will have the chance to demonstrate the creations they can bring to life…

The future looks bright, and perhaps the brightest parts will belong to those who learn to think as a network.

It’s going to be an interesting journey…


  1. inertiaoflanguage 04/15/2014, 5:50 PM Reply

    You might check out Deleuze’s notion of the rhizome if you haven’t already

    • Greatest Instruments 04/16/2014, 12:25 AM Reply

      Thanks. I actually had a long-time reader present it to me (at length). It’s a powerful concept; It may make an appearance in some future work…

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