Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams

A group organized without an organizer, coordinated without a coordinator, and led without a leader. Such structures exist in decentralization where many equal parties work together following an internal system. The social system depends on the cooperation of the whole in order to work and function as intended. Decentralized systems are becoming more apparent within our social structures however they are not always recognized. Our society leans towards a centralized way of thinking and sees the whole pattern of a system. Patterns lead to the idea of some sort of organizer that orchestrates the pattern. Things have a cause, and therefore a controlling factor. The centralized control mindset seemed to lead scientific theories until recently. Centralized systems seemed to be the only ones existing and the only ones that provided a solution. Bird flocks used to be thought of as having a leader the controlled the path of flight. People have relied almost entirely on centralized strategies, ignoring the decentralized approach.

Mitchel Resnick states that we have entered an Era of Decentralization. There is a trend that shifts toward decentralized structures, abandoning centralized hierarchies. Scientists have found more and more evidence of such structures in the systems with every scale from political structures dealing with a whole nation, to microorganisms.

The text states (pg 7)

“[…]neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it  … he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his invention.” Adam Smith

This paragraph reminds me of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in a way. Two neighbors might choose to share resources in order to have less, but stable income. If one tries to use up more land (resources) then they  come out on top, but have income for a shorter amount of time. As in the quote, if every individual “intends only his own gain,” than that implies that between the two neighbors sharing resources would not happen but rather each would only worry about their own income.

So far we had gone through a lot of exercises that applied decentralized models and have visited a couple of places that apply this structure. Meerkat and WOW follow a decentralized system with success. Do you think this is the right model to follow in order to enforce collaboration?

Can you think of an example where a centralized approach took place, but a decentralized one might have worked better? Or the other way around.

What is necessary to support a decentralized module? What factor does communication play?


Viki & Gus

Published by


Hello, my name is Gustavo Faria. I'm a MFA DT candidate and I have acquired some technical skills this passed year. I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I got my bachelor in visual communications. I had the chance to live 6months in Lisbon, Portugal. I've worked in small design agencies, big network companies and a multinational jewelry company. And recently I interned at R/GA which gave me a whole new perspective for work environments and group dynamics. Brazilians leaving in NY: We are a pretty big and strong community. There is no clear way to communicate and interact with one another, but as good brazilians we always attract one another and form a pretty good and solid network. In total, around 7% of the entire U.S. Brazilian population lives in New York City. We are near 100,000 members. There is already a street called Little Brazil… be careful, we are taking over! I'm one of the members of family Faria: Although I didn't choose to be in this group I'm very proud of making part of it. This grouped was formed in 1980. We have a pretty well defined hierarchy that goes from the oldest to the youngest of the group, that's me. Although as individuals we are not very organized, we have a pretty solid structure and knows the skills and limitations of each of the 4 initial members. We recently added 2 more members. I'm a Nike+ Member: By owing a nikefuel band I make part of the nike+ community. Our main source of communication and interaction is through an app. We are people that are highly concerned with our health and that love sports. There are over 7million members. I'm a member of Amazon Prime: Amazon Prime is a service that offers rapid shipping, as well as streaming movies to about 10 million members. And I just discovered I'm one of them. I receive weekly emails, but haven't taken advantage of there service yet. I'm a Chop'r: I recently became a member of Chopt'd Creative Salad. Is a restaurant that I go very often and apparently for every 9 salads I get, I have $9 bonus. They are in 15 locations in NY and I usually order the Ceaser Salad or the Steakhouse with blue cheese (they are very good). I'm have a CitiBike membership: Citibike is a bike share service that started in NY in the beginning of the summer and already have 1000s of bikes for over 70000 users. You can become an annual member for only $95.00 I didn't get my key to access the bikes yet, so I don't have much to say. I'm a WhatApp member: WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. You can create groups to chat and send AV media messages. I'm in a lot of groups of family and friends and this is the primary way that I communicate with with people I care about. I'm a Facebook member: My account is one of the 1.11 billion accounts that Facebook holds. You can find me here: www.facebook.com/gusfaria Tchotchos design: Is an informal group of friends from my design undergrad. We are 4 members and we share thoughts, ideas, design references. We exchange opinions, we cry for help, and make fun of one another. NYC iOS Study meetup group: Apparently Im one of there members. I receive there email weekly and they meet every tuesday. Ive gone to one meeting since the beginning of this year's summer. Thy have 434 members, but only around 50 people meet. The agency Byte dept is the responsible to organize the group. MFA DT Community: I'm a proud member of this community where highly skilled individuals share their knowledge in design, technology and beyond.

7 thoughts on “Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams”

  1. I read a Steven Johnson article in the NY Times about a year ago (link below) titled “The Internet? We Built That.” It followed up on the Obama quote about “you didn’t build that,” referring to the fact that corporations didn’t build infrastructure like the internet, but rather that the government had a large part in doing so. (NB: Obama later followed up to say that people from government, business and civic groups, working together, could build more than any of these groups working alone). His initial quote about the government funded invention of the internet was followed up by many corporate responses about how the www did not gain traction until it was backed by big business. Johnson makes the argument that both positions miss the point, that the basis of the internet, beginning with early protocols to later Linux operating systems and Apache servers, was created by what Yochai Benkler describes as commons based peer production, or decentralized groups of scientists and programmers building on each others open architectures. Johnson says that society lacks master narrative about collaborative innovation, which should now be seriously reconsidered, as there are now new models of high impact production which do not rely on governments for funding and stability, and do not rely on corporations for innovation and infrastructure.

    Johnson article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/magazine/the-internet-we-built-that.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0&src=dayp
    More on commons based peer production here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commons-based_peer_production
    Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks (how social production transforms markets) here: http://yupnet.org/benkler

  2. I recently had read this article (http://csi.gsb.stanford.edu/building-organizations-work) that suggested that people prefer hierarchal situations to non-hierarchal because they “make our lives easier cognitively.” I found this part fairly disturbing yet sadly not surprising-
    “In the final experiment, the researchers sought to determine whether the gender of the individuals in a hierarchy impacts the ease with which people process it. Students in this study were asked to memorize one of four diagrams: two contained the faces of the same seven men and two of the same seven women, but in each pair one was arranged in a traditional 1-2-4 hierarchy, with the single person at the top, and the other was flipped, with the single person on the bottom. Whether they were male or female, the subjects required fewer tries to memorize the male top-down formation than any of the other three, indicating that male hierarchies are more familiar and expected than other types of social structures. As with the other experiments, the subjects were more likely to express a preference for the structure they learned the quickest.”
    I have definitely felt a lack of authority in many situations due to my gender and age. But I wonder if a decentralized hierarchy helps create equality in this sense or only masks it further? I=

    1. Viki and Gus, can you give an example of a human, decentralized group that has NO coordinator or coordination platform? I think decentralized groups have many processes to coordinate action, from protocols to web platforms.

      Stephanie, I think you get at this question: What kinds of efficiency are prioritized in centralized infrastructures? It seems to me that in many decentralized groups, the goal is often the production relationships, not just products. The production of trusting social relationships, particularly non-coercive social relationships, can be powerful, but perhaps not “efficient” in terms of the production of profit. When production is motivated by an exploration of group interest and collective organizing power, and decision-making powers are given to people that are otherwise excluded from these processes, people have to take on the weight of new responsibilities, which may become a burden. Is it “worth” it?

      In general, I hope we can debate the connection Resnick makes between decentralization, democracy, and capitalism, between the “invisible hand” of individual/private interest as described by Adam Smith, and Smith’s claim that capitalism produces decentralized, economic justice? Is capitalism decentralized? Is capitalism democratic? Is it true that “market economies are not determined by some centralized authority, but by local interactions among decentralized components?”

      1. I won’t take on the capitalism debate, as there is much to discuss re the bias and contextual variables in play at the time of Adam Smith, and again at the time of Resnick’s writings in the late 90’s after deregulatory market reforms and the advent of globalism in the early 80’s, followed by … well by lots of stuff.

        At any rate, for human decentralized systems, I would suggest Anonymous and Nettime. Both groups have rules and communication platforms and more vested users at their core, but both systems are open and no one is in charge. Both have a central core consisting of long term participants who are most vested in and experienced with the groups function. For Anonymous, their IRC channels are pretty much open for any one to participate in an Anonymous action. In terms of coordination, there are still rules that govern behavior and protocol for the group (think there are a list of these that are even public). Communication is via IRC, and as far as I understand, anyone who suggests an action and has support for it from other people, can generally do it. It is often debated, but no one really prevents any other person from doing anything. This leads to a more loosely affiliated node or cluster based topology, sort of similar to Nettime.

  3. While I was doing the reading there are a few things that came to my mind concerning decentralized ways of working. Motivation. Not everyone has the motivation to drive a system or a project, in decentralized systems every member of the group has to be driven towards a common goal, and motivations as well as personalities vary from member to member. This reflects on the way people approach the system. Some need a centralized system that defines the roles of each individual whereas some are motivated enough to drive the system, and that’s how leaders emerge in a decentralized system as well. So is it truly decentralized?

    Within a system, and a common goal, if there are different individual goals that everyone is driven towards with equal amount of motivation then it might be a decentralized system, where everyone has an equal say in everything, even if it is different in its own way. Meerkat was a great example of a system like this. But at Ideo, it was quite different, sure everyone has the right to say what they want, but someone, a “leader” has to make a decision. Leaders emerge, and that depends on every individual’s personality and motivation towards the goal.

    For example, my experience at Huge UX school last summer, I was working in a team of 5 on one project, with a common goal, but not necessarily equal amount of motivation, everyone’s motivations varied, because of which leaders emerged within our group at different phases of the project. The goal however was to work collaboratively. My experience with this system of work was decentralized [when looked at zoomed out] yet centralized [when zoomed in] in a way. There was someone always making decisions for the group, we tried to be unanimous but someone had to make the call. At some point all of us were ‘agreeing to disagree’.

  4. I don’t know why but this reminds me of China and Taiwan. This might not be very relevant or either extreme but I think it is a perfect example and a incredibly complicated one to think of. I will try to avoid all the political bias. I am from Taiwan and it is a democratic country. On the other hand China is ruled by social democracy. This two are pretty obvious that one is definitely centralized and one is not in comparison. And we are always educated the bad of side of socialism since we are politically against each other. But it is also very clear that the reason China is progressing so fast needs to credit their centralized governmental power. For example to build the damns of the Yangtse Gorges, the Chinese government move the entire almost 129 villages, up to 1 million people to another place because the water will flood the entire city through construction. I can totally imagine that this will become a 10 years debate in Taiwan not along will be executed successfully. But with the Chinese government it is done within 5 years. Including all the immigration and the enormous construction. Without decentralization, it can never happen. So going back to rethink all the consequences, decision making becomes extremely important. I think that determines the biggest difference between centralization and decentralization. Only few people participate in the decision making process in terms of centralized groups but yet in decentralized groups everyone has right to speak up. However efficiency might drop according to the long debate of final direction as mentioned previously. But of course every side has its gives and takes.

  5. Stephanie’s mention of hierarchal situations being easier cognitively, reminds me of the Starhawk reading we did a couple weeks ago:

    “We are familiar with ladders; we understand them even when we dislike them; they make us comfortable because we know what to expect. Circles are unfamiliar territory, new ground. The experiences we have within them can be healing or heartbreaking, wonderful or extremely frustrating, intimate or alienating, more intense than any other relationships…” (115)

    Here, Starhawk also highlights the difficulties that come when working within circular structures. But we can find heartbreak, frustration, and alienation in hierarchal groups as well. Is it the expectation of these discontents that makes working within a hierarchal group comfortable?

    Both June Jordan and Audre Lorde have written about how there is a strange privilege that one can assume when you exist on periphery (or the bottom of a hierarchy). On the outside, you are able to clearly see the injustice at the center. This metaphor of sight is prevalent in texts that critically address hierarchy, centrality, and power for a more inclusive end. Polyphemus from The Odyssey and Sanjaya from Bhagavad Gita immediately come to mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *