Facebook Is Not A Brain, And Other Failed Metaphors

marching antsIt sounds cool to say maybe the Internet has turned us all into one giant superorganism, as Robert Wright does today in the Opinionator blog at the New York Times. But before we bandy about cool-sounding words, it’s necessary to think hard about what they mean–particularly, what they mean to the biologists who first developed them as concepts.

The word superorganism can describe an ant colony or any other society of animals in which the individuals function like cells in a body. They come in extremely specialized types (workers and queens and other castes for ants; liver cells, neurons, and other cell types for our bodies). They coordinate their specialized functions with communication (alarm pheromones in ants; hormones, cytokines, and other signals in us). What’s more, superorganisms have been shaped by the same force that shapes organisms like us: natural selection. Organisms have evolved into sophisticated decision-generators. In response to changes in the environment, our bodies generate decisions about how to react–whether that decision is to run for our lives or just break into a sweat to help keep ourselves from overheating. Some kinds of decision-making systems favor survival and reproduction. Other kinds fail. It’s legitimate to call an ant colony a superorganism, because the ants also make collective decisions (move a colony, defend it, etc.), and those decisions determine their survival and their ability to make new colonies.

The word superorganism is a metaphor–a way of thinking of something (an insect colony) as something else (an individual animal). But it’s a great metaphor, because the more you think about it, the more parallels you encounter. It guides thought, and yields insight. (A good place to see the metaphor work its magic is in Bert Holdobler’s book,  The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies.) Metaphors fail when they capture a few, superficial similarities but lack the deep connections that really matter. Yes, we can communicate with each other a lot with Facebook, but what collective decision has emerged from that communication, beyond getting Betty White on Saturday Night Live? How have those decisions allowed some superorganisms to survive while others die off? Oops–there’s only one so-called superorganism in Wright’s piece–ourselves. So the metaphor fails yet again. Wright doesn’t do the hard work of proving this metaphor really works. And so when he then starts hinting that somehow becoming a superorganism is the whole point of human evolution–our destiny–it’s a prize he has not earned.

Superorganisms are cool enough when they’re just made up of ants. We don’t need Facebook to make them interesting.

[Image: Alex Wild]

0 thoughts on “Facebook Is Not A Brain, And Other Failed Metaphors

  1. Great comment!
    I always cringe ever so often when I see biological concepts brutally stretched into metaphors for elements of technotopia. In line with your last sentence, it makes me wonder if those people have actually made the effort reading up on the origin of the employed metaphor — and if they did, how they could fail to acknowledge just how much the described object pales in comparison.

  2. Classically you’re right. But humans are social animals, and ’emergence’ – complex systems and behaviors that result from simple inputs – is a phenomenon of social animals, and tools that facilitate new or more or different social interactions contribute to the emergent macro behaviors of the whole. So how about this? These techno tools are like new pheromones among ants, or even new proteins and enzymes in a colony of bacteria, creating new signalling pathways which in turn create new forms of society, which in turn shift the macro behaviors of the whole.
    Like…here I am talking to you, and we’ve never “met”, the old way.

    [CZ: Well, there was a time I got letters in the “mail” from readers. And I never met them either. Emergence is an acceptable, but squishy way of thinking about this stuff. But it’s a long way from what Wright is claiming.]

  3. I’m glad you wrote this counter. I’m sick of journalists, on TV and in print, using “snazzy” words completely out of context solely for the purpose of adding more flash to their piece. If it’s not interesting enough to write about without creating / redefining words then it’s probably not worth writing about at all. Or someone else should write it.

  4. Ultimately it’s all data. Your decision to bound the definition what’s a super-organism and what’s not should not be limited by anthropic biases (for example, is a virtual anthill of sufficient complexity a superorganism?)

    Metaphors allow us to collapse a complex idea into a smaller representation, such that we can chunk more data into our “decision making” processes. (I like that term, by the way!)

    If you can think of a better metaphor for facebook, or these human/technology collectives, I’d be eager to use it. Otherwise, from antfarms to cities, super-organism seems to be a leading choice.

    I worry, though, that you’re just being territorial.

  5. Hear, hear!

    A city isn’t a superorganism either, because the traits that make it succeed or fail aren’t transmitted to daughter cities with the copy fidelity of ant (or human) DNA.

    On the other hand, a piece of software that promotes its own transmission among host computers, has high copy fidelity, and is subject to copying errors (mutations) that change how successfully it reproduces in a given software/network host environment may usefully be called a virus.

  6. I think of the internet as being more akin to a superorganism with areas of specialization like Facebook, Youtube, Google Crag’s List, etc. . It is an emerging phenomenon that “evolves”. Its replicators are memes coded in computer code, languages, and pictures –copied by humans who are evolved information processors, mutators, and replicators. Robert Wright has always been a little garbled for my tastes.

  7. I get the criticism, and it’s a fair one. The way you’ve defined the value of metaphor is very nice. But I think you threw out the baby with the bathwater as they say. I believe that part of what Wright is saying is that the internet user (the individual) may not be aware of what the internet collective is doing, or where it’s going, but he/she is helping it to get there nonetheless. I think a big part of his hypothetical is that this web of electronically connected streams of images, information, activity, conversation, gaming, and who knows what….may be developing its own internal design in a way that its members cannot actually see. It’s complex structure may also have lots of extraneous little hairs and Facebook may be one of them. But the way it is developing is some reflection of our own thought processes, and we don’t really understand those either. Finally, one can build on the perspective Scott Turner explores in his book The Extended Organism, that the structures an animal builds should perhaps be viewed as external organs or extensions of the animal.

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