Stigmergy as a Universal Coordination Mechanism (I)

Heylighen, F. . Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: Definition and components . Cognitive Systems Research (Elsevier) 38 . pp. 4-13. 2016

1. Past, present and future of the “stigmergy” concept

The concept is introduced by Pierre-Paul Grassé 1959 to describe a coordination mechanism used by insects: the work of one leaves traces in the environment that stimulates subsequent work by that insect or by others: ‘This mediation via the environment ensures that tasks are executed in the right order, without any need for planning, control, or direct interaction between agents’ [p 4]. DPB: how can execution in the right order be assured: it is not sure in what order the other agents will encounter the traces and hence in what order they will be motivated to act? From the examples in the text it appears that the stage in which work is left by the previous worker is input for the decision rules of a later worker; this implies that the stage of the work can be recognized. This is not the same as the agents assessing the stage of the work in the sense of attributing a meaning to it, or as in distinguishing this earlier stage from that later stage, because in that case the agent would have to have an idea of the finalized work and to what extent it would have to be complete in relation to the finalized work. Another example is pheromone trails left by insects and that are followed by others. These ideas can in some cases explain self-organization in social systems aka swarm intelligence (Deneubourg 1977). Conceptually a next step is computer supported collaboration between human agents, in particular via the www; another example is the establishing of a price on a market: a price emerges from the myriad of interactions between people that then serves as a reference for their decisions thereafter. DPB: anchoring means that once one has become used to some mark, it serves as a frame of reference thereafter, priming means that once a reference price was given, this serves as a frame of reference thereafter; are these stigmergic effects of a Luhmannian communication on the human mind; is spoken human language an example also, because it damages the direct environment and it only lasts as a damage in the minds of the people involved in the conversation; is written language an example in a kind of slow and long lasting way: once written its damaging effects remain forever; in that way, language (spoken or written can be deframed and reframed and be assigned a new meaning). Understood in this sense stigmergy is ubiquitous and it can clarify many things: ‘Stigmergy in the most general sense does not require either markers or quantities. Another, even more common misunderstanding is that stigmergy only concerns groups or swarms consisting of many agents. As we will show, stigmergy is just as important for understanding the behavior of a single individual’ [p 5]. The notion that an unintentional trace in a passive medium is far removed from the notion of a direct influence of the behavior of one agent on the behavior of another agent.

2 From etymology to definition

Stigmergy is derived from the Greek stigma which means mark or puncture and ergon which means work, the product of work or action: as a joint concept it was originally as a goad or prod or spur (prikkel): ‘Thus (Grassé, 1959) defined stigmergy as ‘the stimulation of workers by the very performances they have achieved (from the original English abstract)’ [p 6]. More recently it was understood as follows: ‘if we understand stigma as “mark” or “sign”and ergon as “action”, then stigmergy is “the notion that an agent’s actions leave signs in the environment, signs that it and other agents sense and that determine their subsequent actions”’ [p 6]. DPB: the understanding of Grassé is that stigmergy means motivation by the work (of others) and the understanding of Parunak is motivation by marks left by the work. Suppose an uttered word already leaves a mark on the mind of some people in a network that is the environment of someone, then the difference between the two is that in the notion of Grassé one has to be present and in the notion of Parunak one does not. DPB: the expression of a meme leads to other expressions of it. ; ‘Stigmergy is an indirect, mediated mechanism of coordination between actions, in which the trace of an action left on a medium stimulates the performance of a subsequent action’ [p 6]. Also the picture is interesting:

In the medium: a mark: which stimulates >>

In the agent: an action: which produces >> [p 6].

DPB: this is my Logistical Model exactly! Using memes it is: an expression of a meme produces a mark in a medium and a perception of that mark stimulates an action in an agent. But what I find missing here is the effect of a meme in the internal, the mark that is left within the agent. That is a difference; let’s see how the stigmergy is defined later on, and whether it includes the mind of the agent when it is included in a social system.

3. Basic components of stigmergy

Action is defined as a causal process that produces a change in the world (real). Agent is defined as a goal-directed autonomous system: this concept is not necessary because actions of a single unspecified agent can be coordinated by stigmergy (but it is useful if more than one agent is involved with different kinds of actions: stigmergy is the coordinator of actions that are merely events or (agentless) processes. This can be represented by a condition-action rule: the condition specifies the state of the world inducing the action, and the action specifies the subsequent transformation of that state. This can also be written as: a+b+c+.. >> x+y+.., where the + indicaes the conjunction of the conditions and of the actions. Chemical Organization Theory (Dittrich & Winter, 2008) show how collections of these simple reactions tend to become coordinated by acting on a shared medium (reaction vessel), where they produce an evolving trace expressed by the concentrations of the different ‘molecules’ (a,b,..). This coordinated pattern of activity defines an organization: a self-sustaining, dynamic network of interacting ‘molecules’. The relation is causal but not deterministic: the probability that an action takes place increases if the conditions are met (P (action I condition) > P (action). DPB: the medium is the whole of the environment that can contain (be damaged to show) data in the sense of a signal whether fast or slow to disappear and widely or narrowly distributed, e.g. a tombstone (in the real) or a change in the state of the mind of one’s interlocutor caused by the irritation of one’s words (in the virtual of Simondon). In the latter case the minds of the interlocutors are a part of the environment of the person: ‘The medium is that part of the world that undergoes changes through the actions and whose states are sensed as conditions for further actions’ [p 7]. The medium is an aspect of the environment: ‘First, .. , the environment is not in general perceivable an controllable. Second, the environment normally denotes everything outside the system or agent under consideration. However, stigmergy can also make use of an internal medium’ (emphasis by the author) [p 7]. DPB: waarvan acte! As a consequence aspects of the agent system are controllable by elements in the environment and hence they belong to the medium. The environment is that part of the world with which an agent interacts; phenomena perceivable and controllable are different for each agent and hence every agent has a different environment; ‘When we consider stigmergic coordination between different agents, we need to define the medium as that part of the world that is controllable and perceivable by all of them’ [p 7]. DPB: this reminds of the discourse / population idea, where a multitude of people included by a communication (the discourse) is defined as a population. This is different because in the discourse people are included that find themselves to be attracted as a result of their life experience and because of the selections of the communication. The medium is a broader and wider concept because it is determined by what people can perceive and control, but that does not necessarily attract them because of their life experience so far. The role of the medium is to allow interaction between different actions to take place, and thus, indirectly, between different agents; this mediating function is the true power of stigmergy. A final component of a stigmergic system is a trace or a mark; it is the result of an action and as such it contains information about the action that produced it: ’We might see the trace as a message, deposited in a medium, through which the pattern of activity communicates with itself, while maintaining a continuously updated “memory” of its achievements. From the point of view of an individual agent, on the other hand, the trace is a challenge: a situation that incites action, in order to remedy a perceived problem or shortcoming, or to exploit an opportunity for advancement (Heylighen, 2012)’ (emphasis by the author) [p 8]. DPB: I think in the Logistical Model the medium is the mind of the person as well as the communication: both are simultaneously and differently damaged through their mutual irritations.

4. Coordination

According to the Oxford Dictionary, coordination can be defined as the organization of the different elements of a complex body or activity so as to enable them to work together effectively’ (emphasis by the author) [p 8]. In the case of stigmergy the ‘elements’ are actions or agents; ‘effectively’ means that a goal is pursued; ‘working together’ means that the agents or actions are harmonious or synergetic ‘the one rather helping than hindering the other’ [p 8]. ‘Organization’ means a structure with a function, where ‘function’ is the achievement of the intended effect and ‘structure’ is the way agents or actions are connected such that they form a coherent whole. ‘This brings the focus on the connections that integrate the actions into a synergetic, goal-oriented whole’ (emphasis of the author) [p 8]. DPB: this reminds me of autopoietic systems: the properties of the elements of a systems determine the relations between them. The goal-orientation and the synergy (or harmony) of the elements (or rather of the body they form) is per definition dedicated to their autopoiesis.

5. The benefits of stigmergy

Stigmergic organization limits the gap between planning, instructions and reality; it is robust to contingency and shock; it is less prone to error of communication and errors of control than traditional forms of organization; it is less dependent on the number of agents or actions involved or the dependencies between them. The only requirement is that the agents have access to the medium and that they can recognize the conditions to start their actions. There is no need for: planning, memory, direct communication, mutual awareness, simultaneous presence, imposed sequence, imposed dividion of labor, commitment, centralized control.

6. Self-organization through negative feedback

Error-controlled regulation means that a deviation from the goal of an agent implies a change of behavior of the agent such that a compensatory action suppresses the effect of the deviation, the error. The agent must be capable to sense the error and to execute a compensatory action. In regards to the establishment of effective collective action, the only additional assumption is that the goals of the agents are not contradictory, but the goals are not necessary the same for it. ‘We may assume that agents have acquired their condition-action rules (and thus their implicit goals) through natural selection of instinctual behavior or differential reinforcement of learned behavior. This means that their condition-action rules are generally appropriate to the local environment, including the other agents with which they regularly interact’ [p 11]. DPB: the entire system maintains its autopoiesis and its parts maintain theirs; the entire systems develops (evolutionarily) in its environment of other systems and its parts develop in their environments of other parts; the parts develop autopoietically within the conditions of the autopoiesis of the entire system. Their ‘goals’ are their autopoiesis as it is trained to the requirements of their (local) context.

7. Self-organization through positive feedback

This is the amplification of movements towards an existing goal; they can be called diversions because they divert action from its ongoing course.

8. Conclusion

Virtually all evolved processes that require coordination between actions seem to rely at some level on stigmergy, in the sense that subsequent actions are stimulated by the trace left by previous actions in some observable and manipulable medium. The trace functions like a registry and map, indicating which actions have been performed and which still need to be performed. It is shared by all agents that have access to the medium, thus allowing them to coordinate their actions without need for agent-to agent communication. It even allows the coordination of “agentless” actions, as investigated e.g. by Chemical Organization Theory (Dittrich & Fenizio, 2007)’ [p 12]. DPB: I disagree with the ‘that require coordination’ phrase: what about a wandering discussion, where the medium involves the brains of the the other participants. This does not require coordination as such but it is coordinated.

Social Systems as Parasites

Seminar 1 December 2017, Francis Heylighen

Social Systems as Parasites

The power of a social system

1. In an experiment concerning punishment, people obey an instruction to administer others electric shocks. People tend to be obedient / “God rewards obedience” / “Whom should I obey first?” 2. When asked to point out which symbol is equal to another, people select the one they believe is equal, but when they are confronted with the choices of the other contestants, they tend to change their selection to what the others have chosen. Social systems in this way determine our worldview, namely the social construction of reality by specifying what is real.

Social systems suppress self-actualization

Social systems don’t ‘want’ you to think for yourself, but to replicate their information instead; social systems suppress non-conformist thought, namely they suppress differences in thought, and thereby they do not allow the development of unique (human) personalities: they suppress self-actualization. Examples of rules: 1. A Woman Should Be A Housewife >> If someone is a woman then, given that she shows conformist behavior, she will become a housewife and not a mathematician &c. Suppose Anna has a knack for math: If she complies then she becomes a housewife and she is likely to become frustrated; If she does not comply then she will become a mathematician (or engineer &c) and she is likely to become rebellious and suffer from doubts &c.2. To Be Gay is Unacceptable >> If someone is gay then, given that she shows conformist behavior, she will suppress gay behavior, but show a behavior considered normal instead; Suppose Anna is gay: If she complies she will be with a man and become frustrated; If she does not comply then she is likely to become rebellious, she will exhibit gay behavior, be with a woman, and suffer from doubts &c.

Social Systems Programming

People obey social rules unthinkingly and hence their self-actualization is limited (by them). This is the same as to say that social systems have a control over people. The emphasis on the lack of thinking is by the authors. The social system consists of rules that assists the thinking. And only thinking outside of those rules (thinking while not using those rules) would allow a workaround, or even a replacement of the rules, temporary or ongoing. This requires thinking without using pre-existing patterns or even thinking sans-image (new to the world).

Reinforcement Learning

1. Behaviorist: action >> reward (rat and shock) 2. socialization: good behavior and bad behavior (child and smile). This was a sparse remark: I guess the development of decision-action rules in children by socialization (smiling) is the same as the development of behavioral rules in rats by a behaviorist approach (shock).

Social systems as addictions

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter producing pleasure. A reward releases dopamine; Dopamine is addictive; Rewards are addictive. Social systems provide (ample) sources for rewards; Participating in social systems is a source of dopamine and hence it is addictive (generates addiction) and it maintains the addiction.


Reinforcement need NOT be immediate NOR material (e.g. heaven / hell). Narratives can describe virtual penalties and rewards: myth, movies, stories, scriptures.

Conformist transmission

When more people transmit a particular rule then more people will transmit it. DPB: this reminds me of the changes in complex systems as a result of small injected change: many small changes and fewer large ones: the relation between the size of the shifts and their frequency is a power law.

Cognitive Dissonant

Entertaining mutually inconsistent beliefs is painful: the person believes it is bad to kill other people. As a soldier he now kills other people. This conflict can be resolved by replacing the picture of a person to be killed by the picture of vermin. The person thinks it is ok to kill vermin.

Co-opting emotions

Emotions are immediate strong motivators that bypass rational thought. Social systems use emotions to reinforce the motivation to obey their rules. 1. Fear: the anticipation of a particular outcome and the desire to avoid it 2. Guilt: fear of a retribution (wraak) and the desire to redeem (goedmaken); this can be exploited by the social system because there can be a deviation from its rules without a victim and it works on imaginary misdeeds: now people want to redeem vis-a-vis the social system 3. Shame: Perceived deficiency of the self because one is not fulfilling the norms of the social system: one feels weak, vulnerable and small and wishes to hide; the (perceived) negative judgments of others (their norms) are internalized. PS: Guilt refers to a wrong action implying a change of action; Shame refers to a wrong self and implies the wish for a change of (the perception of) self 4. Disgust: Revulsion of (sources of) pollution such as microbes, parasites &c. The Law of Contagion implies that anything associated with contagion is itself contagious.

Social System and disgust

The picture of a social system is that it is clean and pure and that it should not be breached. Ideas that do not conform to the rules of the social system (up to and including dogma and taboo) are like sources of pollution; these contagious ideas lead to reactions of violent repulsion by the ones included by the social system.

Vulnerability to these emotions

According to Maslow people who self-actualize are more resistant to these emotions of fear, shame, guilt and disgust.

DPB: 1. how do variations in the sensitivity to neurotransmitters affect the sensitivity to reinforcing? I would speculate that a higher sensitivity to dopamine leads to a more eager reaction to a positive experience, hence leading to a stronger reinforcement of the rule in the brain 2. how do higher or lower sensitivity to risk (the chance that some particular event occurs and the impact when it does) affect their abiding by the rules? I would speculate that sensitivity to risk depends on the power to cognize it and to act in accordance with it. A higher sensitivity to risk leads to attempting to follow (conformist) rules more precisely and more vigorously; conversely a lesser sensitivity to risk leaves space for interpretation of the rule, its condition or its enactment.

The Meme Machine

The Meme Machine – Susan Blackmore


My introduction

To cut a long story short – don’t worry I will summarize in some detail the train of thought hereafter anyway, because I am not going to get away with it just like that and you will miss nothing – Blackmore suggests to annihilate Dawkins’ hope for the human condition and Dennetts expectations (however small) about it: we cannot rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators (the gene), because there is no one to rebel. And it is exactly this realisation, according to Blackmore, that allows us to live a truly free life. Wow.

We humans in her view are susceptible to the thought that we are capable of thinking, hoping and expecting, but in fact she suggests we are ‘meme machines’. These thoughts above are memes themselves. Humans are biological computing machines, fit to run any utterable program. The programs fight or negotiate between themselves, in our heads, for attention. They may or may not be favourable to us humans, their hosts, where they live.

It is them, the memes, that live in our minds. And it is them that make us think we think, memorize, expect, and hope. We believe we do these things. But we don’t, not really. In other words: humans are susceptible to invasions of ideas and concepts that shape their thought and, henceforth, their actions. These memes have their own intention to survive. Like all natural processes they are ‘stupid’ processes, they don’t have a ‘will’, they just survive.

Let’s call large complexes of integrated and complex sets of memes, their subsets and their interrelations memeplexes. Then culture is an ‘ensemble’ of memeplexes, say related to work ethics, cooking habits, dinner etiquette, religions and their interrelations, economic behaviour, traffic regulations and customs and so on and so forth. In this world, humans are the computing machine that culture runs on. Cultural elements called memes are struggling to survive on a human substrate.

And conversely: if a human being actively enters any such cultural environment, by upbringing, by local or social circumstances, or for personal reasons or a profession, the memes in vigor in that environment at that time will have an influence on the thoughts of that individual. And consequently on his or her actions and behaviour, and lastly, on her or his own utterances, thus propagating the culture in his environment.

The linking pin between this train of thought and my research subject is that people, when dealing with a company or in fact any organisation, willingly give up some of their autonomy to have their behaviour increasingly steered by the culture in vigor in this (new) environment: by the ruling memes. In many cases company culture shows some traits resembling religious belief and in some cases to work at a company requires a faith bordering the religious. When defining company behaviour, I suggest that the leading principle be therefore not defined by the specific details of the people and processes it encompasses, but by the ‘ensemble’ of cultural elements that shapes it and defines its corporal behaviour. That is: behaviour that is autonomous and in a sense independent of the behaviour of the constituent human beings that are merely the computer that the company runs on.

The central thesis of my research project is this: companies are behavioural patterns in space and time steered by memes, through which material, people and information flow. Verder lezen The Meme Machine

De Piloten van Luyendijk

Deze post is een reactie op het recente en waardevolle boek van Joris Luyendijk: Dit Kan Niet Waar Zijn. Luyendijk analyseert als ‘tot antropoloog opgeleide journalist’ en zonder kennis van financiële markten, het gedrag van mensen in hun professionele habitat: de financiële sector in Londen. Zijn eerste interview vraag is ongeveer deze: ‘hoe kun jij met jezelf leven na wat je de mensheid hebt aangedaan in de crisis van 2008?’. Zijn beeld na circa twee jaar onderzoek en 200 interviews is: een vliegtuig met problemen en een lege cockpit. Met de kennis die ik tot nu toe heb verzameld over complexe adaptieve systemen ga ik op zoek naar de missende piloten van Luyendijk. Verder lezen De Piloten van Luyendijk

Krugman over complexiteit in ruimtelijke economie (hoe steden ontstaan)

Deze post is gaat over het artikel: ‘How the Economy Organises Itself in Space: A Survey of the new Economic Geography’ van Paul Krugman in SFI Proceedings II, The Economy as an Evolving Complex System.

Dit artikel is een survey van onderzoek op dit gebied. Aangezien Spatial Economy buiten de scope van dit onderzoek is geef ik – en ik doe het artikel tekort – een paar voorbeelden eruit weer, die illustreren hoe complexe effecten optreden in eenvoudige economische situaties. Verder lezen Krugman over complexiteit in ruimtelijke economie (hoe steden ontstaan)

North over Institutional Change

Deze post is gebaseerd op het artikel ‘Some Fundamental Puzzles in Economic History/Development van D.C. North verschenen in de SFI Proceedings ‘The Economy as an Evolving Complex System’.

North is heeft de term Institutional Economics geïntroduceerd, zie de vorige post: Economische modellen. Hij stelt in dit artikel de vraag waarom de historische ontwikkeling van landen onderling zo verschilt en hoe economische verandering in modellen kan worden opgenomen. Verder lezen North over Institutional Change

Padgett over zelf-organisatie

Deze post is grotendeels gebaseerd op het artikel ‘The Emergence of Simple Ecologies of Skill: A Hypercycle Approach to Economic Organisation’ van John F. Padgett opgenomen in Santa Fé Proceedings, ‘The Economy as an Evolving Complex System’.

Dit artikel is één van de sleutels voor mijn onderzoek, omdat het een antwoord geeft op de vraag hoe er samenhang kan ontstaan in activiteiten waarin die samenhang niet expliciet is. Verder bevat het geresenteerde model een voorstel voor een mechanisme waarmee lokale acties naar globaal gedrag propageren. Het model sluit aan bij mijn ‘velden van activiteiten’ (zie post Simplexity en Complicity), de Concepten van Dennett, de Memes van Dawkins, de Bucket Brigade algorithm van Holland (zie de post Inductie) en voorstellen van  Kauffman. Het model is ingebed in de evolutietheorie en geeft daarin een fundament aan het begip organisatie. Als laatste is er een hint naar een natuurlijke moraal die voortkomt uit de vorm van het proces en daar ga ik nog een post aan wijden. Verder lezen Padgett over zelf-organisatie

Lane over de MAX Rule

Deze post is ook gebaseerd op het artikel ‘Information Contagion: Is what is good for each best for all?’ van David Lane, 1997, in SFI Proceedings The Economy as an Evolving Complex System. Dit is zo’n opmerkelijk onderdeel daaruit dat ik er een aparte post aan wijd. Verder lezen Lane over de MAX Rule

Lane en Maxfield over Strategie in Complexe omstandigheden

Deze post gaat over strategieontwikkeling in complexe omstandigheden en is grotendeels gebaseerd op het artikel van David Lane en Robert Maxfield getiteld ‘Foresight, Complexity and Strategy’, 1996, opgenomen in SFI Proceedings: ‘The Economy as an Evolving Complex System’. Verder lezen Lane en Maxfield over Strategie in Complexe omstandigheden

Kauffman en Darley: Natural Rationality

Dit artikel van S.A. Kauffman en V.M. Darley, in Santa Fe Proceedings, The Economy as an Evolving Complex System, beschrijft een model van een economisch systeem, waarbij het gedrag van agenten het gevolg is van de voorspellingen die ze doen over het gedrag van andere agenten in hun nabijheid. De conclusie is dat agenten beperkt rationeel gaan handelen door de interactie met hun omgeving. Dit is interessant, omdat duidelijker wordt hoe een agent (lees: bedrijf of bedrijfsonderdeel) zich kan gedragen om zijn fitness te verhogen in een veranderende omgeving. Verder lezen Kauffman en Darley: Natural Rationality