Autopilot, by Andrew Smart (Chapter 5)

A stigmergic school of fish!

Chapter 5: You are a self-organizing system

As far as I can tell from my notes, this chapter starts off really interesting but then falls flat after that. The reason why it starts off so interesting is because Smart quotes Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin, for those who don’t know, is a notable anarchist communist thinker who gave up the status of royalty to study biology and become a philosopher.

Here’s the quote from Kropotkin:

…I soon understand that in serious work commanding and discipline are of little avail. (p. 79)

It makes sense on a number of levels to quote Kropotkin given his interest in self-organizing systems of mutual aid and his general interest in anarchism. Anarchism, as a political philosophy and not just a buzzword for chaos or violence that is so often used by the media, is inherently tied to self-organizing systems. These are systems of actions that internally regulate themselves on a voluntary basis and do not require the intervention of outside “humanitarian” help.

This quotation also works within the scope of the chapter and much of the book. As we’ve learned, the brain is a very self-organizing and self-motivating organism in our bodies. External stimuli just doesn’t do what internal stimuli does for our brain and getting it going. When I’m working at my crap retail job, my brain is not as engaged then if, for example, I’m listening to great music or an amazing podcast or writing something (this piece, for example).

So, as an anarchist, this is a chapter that you would naturally think interests me. I mean, it says it right on the (proverbial) tin that anarchists have a lot to say about self-organization. But according to my notes (this was a while ago, so I hope you’ll excuse me), this chapter is actually pretty sparse on interesting or meaningful content to comment on.

I think that’s because most of the chapter deals with the topic of ants, computers and other self-organizing systems of interactions. But there’s noting terribly new or exciting for me, personally. I’ve read up on the idea of stigmergy and how it specifically applies to ants and how that relates to self-organization, specifically anarchic self-organization.

And given how often I talk about automation and advanced forms of technology that may save us a lot of time in the future, I’m not completely unfamiliar with the ways computers can learn and develop on their own. So neither of these topics are particularly new and exciting for me and as such, I didn’t have much to comment on. Adding on to that, I’ve already written about self-organizing systems (specifically stigmergy) within the context of this review, in the introduction.

I will comment on some of the content on page 80 though:

Whether the system we’re talking about is an individual human being, an entire society, or the climate, staying within certain limits is essential for the system’s stability. For humans this might be why being idle is so important it allows your system to return to what are called “stable dynamics.”

According to the Polish physicists Jaroslaw Kwapien and Stanislaw Drozdz, a complex self-organizing system is “built from a large number of nonlinearly interacting constituents, which exhibits collective behavior and, due to an exchange of energy or information with the environment, can easily modify its internal structure and patterns of activity.”

Examples of these types of system are convective air masses, turbulence, fractal coastlines—and of course, brains.

Smart’s point here is a great one: Bosses, capitalism and the general social system we are in ignores these scientific insights to the detriment of our own brains. We all push ourselves (and each other) far too hard, far too often. To the point that people are constantly stressed, bored, frustrated and so many other concerning emotions/state of beings about life.

And when we feel like that, there’s often little recourse to us. We can hardly fight our bosses in terms of their power over us or the stranglehold that capitalism (as an economic system) has on our brains and bodies. So this powerlessness makes us double down on these negative states of being, instead of being able to try to enjoy idle time.

Idleness is, instead, shunned and shamed and treated like some sort of moral failing. Especially at work it’s treated as a kind of breach of contract. In work you’re expected (with very few exceptions) too work and any other time that you are spending not working is more or less stealing from the employer. It should be noted that this sort of theory about contracts and bosses presumes they have legitimate authority over others, but we’ll put that to the side.

The basic point Smart is making here seems intuitive and backed by science: Idleness keeps us much more stable and much more often than overworking ourselves does. If we find ourselves overwhelmed in our daily lives, we should strive to increase the amount of idle time we do, not work time. And to be clear, idleness doesn’t have to be nothing, idleness is more about pacing yourself and making conscious, voluntary choices, about what you want to do in your life.

One last thing I noted, on page 84:

When the colony is resting during the day (even ants are idle!), it would be a waste of time to build labor-intensive nests. Instead, the ants form a shelter called a bivouac using their own massed bodies to protect the queen and the young ants from intruders.

The ants connect their bodies to each other and form into a kind of tent structure all without a boss ant telling them what to do. (emphasis mine)

While this sounds decentralized and so forth, it doesn’t actually lack a boss, the ants just aren’t responding to the queen’s specific orders. But they’re still sacrificing their bodies for a queen and it’s hard to say then that the ant colony is really the ideal place to look for stigmergic self-organization.

As William Gillis wrote in a recent essay on anarchism (also linked above):

This reframing of anarchy in terms of centralization rather than domination is an obvious trick because decentralized expressions of rulership or interpersonal domination can clearly be quite severe. Parental abuse of children, partner abuse, sexual violence, community ostracization, and many other informal power dynamics of social capital are often far more visceral and constraining in many people’s actual lives than war, taxes, and police repression. Exploitation at the hand of the thief or bandit, the mugger or rapist, the brigand and minor warlord, is hardly any different than at the hand of a cop or bureaucrat.

Overall this chapter was mostly uninteresting, but maybe that’s just me. I won’t say it was a bad chapter because it connected to a lot of the issues the book is addressing in a competent way. But given my own travels through anarchism I didn’t find too many things surprising or interesting. It’s like telling a mathematician some old facts about their favorite equations. They’re not particularly impressed or interested, but it’s always nice to hear their equations still hold up.

Heck, I just made a math analogy.

What has happened to me?


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