> urticator.net

  About This Site
> Glue

  The Mind
  The Body
> Other (2)

  Don't Fight Your Mind
> Superorganisms
  Thoughts About Email
  How I Cleaned My Room
  Household Memes

> Feedback
  Another Example


The other day, as I was walking through my apartment complex, I noticed that water was pouring out of one of the lawn sprinklers, and when I looked closely, I saw that part of the head was missing. So, when I got home, I called the property manager to let him know. I imagine he sent a maintenance guy over with a new part, or called in an outside repair service, or something.

After that, I got to thinking … that's a pretty clear example of a superorganism at work, isn't it? It's exactly like what would happen if I cut my finger. My nerves would report the problem to me, and I'd clean it up, or go to the doctor.

Although it's not my main goal here, it's interesting to try and pin down exactly what the superorganism is. Clearly, it's concerned with the physical integrity of the apartment complex, and it's powered by money, by the fees the tenants pay. (I'd guess, by the way, that financial entities constitute one of the major categories of superorganism, a kingdom or phylum or whatever.) The regular flow of money makes it clear that the tenants, staff, and maintenance crew all participate in the organism; and the lack of regular flow suggests that people working for outside repair services are not participating.

It just occurred to me to wonder what the point of talking about superorganisms is. It's like the argument one often hears about memes, that if a meme is just an idea, what's the point of making a new word for it? In both cases, I'd say the point is to remind us of an analogy—ideas are like genes, financial entities (and other things) are like organisms—and thereby suggest interesting new ways of thinking about things.

Consider, for example, the biological concept of homeostasis. Applied to the apartment complex superorganism, it suggests that the thing should be capable of repairing itself, as indeed it is.

But I digress. What I'm really interested in is the idea of feedback. What if I had been apathetic, and hadn't bothered to call and report the problem? What would that imply about the organism? Well, consider the analogous situation. What would it mean if I weren't notified when I'd cut my finger? It would mean my nerves were damaged, or that I had leprosy, or something … in any case, it would mean I was unhealthy.

Actually, that analogy isn't quite correct. It wasn't the damaged sprinkler that notified central control, it was me, a peripheral cell going about my normal business. If we had, say, electronic flow meters throughout the sprinkler system, that would make the analogy better … and would also show that superorganisms can have interesting parts that aren't human.

So, anyway, that's what I mean by feedback, and the conclusion I draw from thinking about it is that a healthy superorganism should have numerous paths of communication leading from the periphery back to the center.

I think most businesses haven't really got their feedback working yet. If I notice a systematic problem at a store or wherever, I'll often try mentioning it to an employee, but usually it's quite clear that the information is going to be ignored, that the employee isn't in the habit of relaying information. With effort, I could probably find a way to provide the feedback, but, well, it's not my superorganism.

Although I haven't really gotten a handle on political entities as superorganisms, I do also wonder about feedback in that context. Voting is certainly a kind of feedback … an unsatisfying, low-bandwidth kind, if you ask me. Protesting, I think, might also be a kind of feedback.


  See Also

  Another Example
  Memes vs. Ideas

@ October (2001)