Lord of the Ants

Peaceful is how I describe writing computer code, when there are no pressures. The intricacies of systems to methodologies to result are centering, calming, even therapeutic. It is ordered, in the same way the molecules of a paintbrush are ordered, allowing a painter’s hand to sweep images onto a canvas. The order establishes a framework, utilized toward whichever creative or mundane ends the creator envisions. We adopt the rules and tools within this framework to manufacture foundations and scaffoldings that are, if we are skilled and full of care, completely invisible.

A neophyte sees challenges and struggles to overcome them. As such, they are well suited for smaller, detailed tasks. Given the broader scope of a more intricately woven system, neophytes easily loose their footing and eventually bend the smooth, larger flows of a functioning system into a more clustered and growing density, constrained around and upon the limits of their understanding and the breadth of their creativity. A mastery and comfort with the commonplace is essential before any neophyte should lead. At the same time, a willingness and curiosity to move beyond established structure is a prerequisite to true growth, true change, and is a hallmark of mastery. The neophyte believes that respect is earned and deserved based upon their commitment and hard work. The master knows that respect can only be given.

I recently listened to a lecture by a scientist who studies ant colonies. I am not fond of insects for wildly irrational and prejudicial reasons. This could mean I will be reincarnated as a bug until I can gain a proper appreciation for my insect life. Hopefully I won’t be a wicked bug that must bite humans or crawl around in their hair. Then again, my bug brain might not be the brightest. A failing of bugs, or of humans? Who can say? But yes, bugs. This scientist studied them, and it was interesting. And a little creepy. But it was, for me, incrementally enlightening.

My first proper job working with computers was in a large information systems facility running primarily behemoth IBM mainframes, which were both affectionately and derogatorily referred to as the “Old Iron”. Unending rows of refrigerator-sized devices flashed and whirred, all interconnected, crunching numbers every day, and every night. There was even a department of people whose sole task was making certain that programs ran in the correct order. These machines had access to vast oceans of information which they constantly chewed upon in their electronic brains, that always seemed to me more like a whirlwind of chaos than neatly ordered printouts that would provide people, somewhere, with insight.

PC’s were just beginning their adoption within organizations. The people dealing with PC’s in this information processing subsidiary where I worked were members of a small department called “End User Computing”. We, who occupied the parts of the building behind glass doors requiring key card access, who had two entire layers of people buffering us from those thousands of “end users” out there, considered the “End User Computing” department to be a cute little thing at best. But it turned out we actually could give those little PC’s nice snippets of processed data from the Great Storm, which those “end users” could poke around with in their fun spreadsheets, and find it useful. But it was a Pandora’s Box – once opened, never closed, while their hunger and demand only grew.

My title within this organization was Technical Systems Analyst, Distributed Systems Software. I made certain that the colossal Iron in the central facility would always cooperate nicely with the not-quite-so-colossal Iron located at remote facilities, in subsidiary organizations. This was, in a sense, a decentralized system, while simultaneously maintaining the benefits of centralization. That is, each subsidiary was free to operate how they thought best, as long as they communicated everything back, which we could monitor and process, then feed back down to them once again in arguably more meaningful and helpful ways. But this is Old Iron talking to Old Iron. With “End User Computing” suddenly run amok and every Sally, Steve and Gertrude whining about wanting everything their way, the balance began to shift.

The meaning of central planning began to shift. The notion of central control practically vanished. Although always a struggle to some degree, a new flow took form. In organizations this size, end user PC’s are inadequate. It’s a little like trying to fill a cup with a swimming pool, or trying to pump out just the specific water you want into your cup, from somewhere within all the water of the pool. End users, being whimsical and chaotic (note my kindness) never really know what they want, how they want it, or why they should have it. They only know that they want something specific, at some point in time. It became our purpose, at the larger well, to make certain that each of the wacky end users, with their varied and diverse tastes, had everything they could possibly pull out of their… hats… before they even knew they might want it. This gave them satisfaction, while giving us happiness, since satisfied people do not generally claw and pull at you.

All this makes us somewhat more clever than ants. Male and female ants grow wings, fly off together and mate. After this, the females bury themselves underground and have babies while the males fall over dead. That’s not the more clever bit, at least I don’t believe it is. The queen ant births generation after generation to form the colony. That’s all she does, and she does it for approximately 20 years. There are four types of ants. Ants that do housekeeping, ants that work outside, ants that explore and ants that get food. On the average, about half the ants of the colony just kick back doing nothing at all, hanging out idly in the nest. Of the ants that do a job, they sometimes switch off with one another. Once a slacker ant starts to work, they never go back to being slacker ants. If there happens to be a lot of yard work one day, some of the explorers and housekeepers might help out. If a new food source is found, they yard work and housekeeping can wait.

This all sounds very sensible (except for the lack of TV). The queen controls none of it. She just keeps having babies. In fact, it all happens, in large part, due to chaotic interactions combined with a simple program. Younger colonies with smaller populations cope with unusual circumstances with a good deal more turmoil than older, more populated colonies. Since the lifespan of ants is around 2 years while the colony (the queen) is 20, an older colony does not mean an older and wiser ant population. It just means more ants. And, with more ants you have more ants bumping into one another, smelling what that other ant has been up to. And that might smell mighty fine to you, so you go off with them to do their job too.

So, we have all these mostly blind end users running around every which way, sniffing others nearby and deciding they better do this or that. And somehow it just works out. Then, after a colony has matured to a certain size after a few years, males start being born and females start sprouting wings to fly off, mate, bury, have babies, die, etc., and a new colony is begun. Now, I know what you’re wondering: how are we humans better than this? Is it because our males actually live beyond mating? No. Is it because we can squash ants with our boots or burn their nests with fire? No, and see what I mean about our males living? Is it because our females don’t have obscenely tiny waists like ants have? No, no and no. I’ll tell you why we’re more clever. We have God.

Okay, I know. Technically that’s not true. God has us. Or, rather, we think or oftentimes assume he does. Yes, ok – we possess some abstract notion of spirituality that is beyond us, and influences us. Alright! Alright!! We are capable of conceiving abstract and collective “rules” that influence us perhaps as heavily as biology. Satisfied!?

I’m not. Mostly because we still collectively, if not individually, embrace the “Old Iron” model of hierarchy and the centralization of control. I can’t be too bothered by it, though. After all, it’s a natural step along our path of discovering that we have brains. I am even willing to put our brains, biology and society, at least in a quasi-synonymous sense, with computers, in the same tired way that biologist cum Atheist cum philosopher Richard Dawkins is wont to do. Computers, when interconnected and operating as a non-hierarchical clustered system, operate far more efficiently, have far greater capacities and capabilities, while at the same time gain greater resistance to failure and disaster.

God is the ultimate in hierarchy. Whether we believe in God or not, the concepts we share related to religion, as a social unit, exert an influence upon our thinking, and therefore actions, perhaps second only to language itself and reason. For many, reason sits even lower down the totem pole than religion. And, lest Atheists think they are free, it’s a good idea to remember that reacting against something is being influenced as certainly as acting for something, though of course, your mileage may vary. The trouble (and perhaps benefit) of God being the ultimate big boy is that he never takes your calls or returns your emails, and the last time he bothered to write something down for us was a few thousand years ago, and that was done on unwieldy rocks, which seem to have been misplaced.

So in this circumstance we’re left with people having to interpret what God really means. The interpretations have been, and continue to be, interpreted differently as our cultures change and situations warrant. In other words, the human totem has moved reason up enough for us to all agree that it is wrong, regardless of what the Word of God says, to stone our mothers and sisters to death for eating fish while wearing green clothes on a Tuesday, so to speak. However, some masters, having been given enough respect by their followers, are able to rise up enough in a virtual hierarchy to cause a reinterpretation slanted toward their peculiar will. Some call them holy men or prophets, believing they have a direct line into the mind of God. Others call them cultists or criminals. Or, to a lesser, more down-to-earth degree, pick-pockets. Some might call them presidents. But if no clear hierarchy exists within the ultimate of hierarchies, how do we know what really is right or wrong?

I feel almost ridiculous saying this, but I am also continually astonished by the narrow, dark hallways of many people’s homes. Rules laid down by a supernatural entity are not the only means that we, as human beings, have at our disposal when we try to determine if something is right or wrong, or good or bad. The same holds true for the laws and bylaws, procedures, policies and even cultural “norms” of humankind. Collectively we might determine our best guiding principles and even enforce them. Critical thinking, openness and understanding are far better than coercion as a means to best ensure that our principles are followed. And in doing so we not only blunt the more destructive aspects of hierarchy, but we also finally achieve the informed and enlightened collective state that makes us better than the distributed ants, without the drawbacks a hierarchical ontology. What an accomplishment.

It is unfortunate, however, that this allegory is not quite as simple in a realistic application. The truth is, God is not, regardless of what you tell yourself, the most important thing. Money is, and by degrees, our own self-interest. It sits on the tip top of our totem pole. Will you lie? Will you take advantage of people or situations? Will you look the other way, even when someone is being hurt, if it protects you? Would you cause harm to another? Would you kill them? Would you help to bring down other people whom you know have done no wrong, simply for your own gain, directly or indirectly? Would you do something you personally felt was wrong, out of duty or loyalty to a person, position or some abstract idea? Would you cause harm to the world in any way if it brought you some benefit?

Religious people are lucky in this respect. They can go to the convenience store, insert a token, and out of the vending machine pops a dose of absolution which they down like Valium. Nothing is their fault, because they are flawed humans, pathetic in God’s eyes, but he loves them and forgives them anyway. Their only responsibility is to regularly go to the vending machine. They don’t have to be responsible. They can do something bad, go oops, and then forget all about it, with no reason to examine themselves, make amends, or even, God forbid (encourage?), make a real effort in the world to undo or somehow make up for the harm in which they participated. They even have the audacity to oftentimes believe themselves better off in some way, in a meaningful, spiritual sense.

Those people who do not take drugs like this are either faced with unrelenting pressure upon their conscience until something snaps, causing them to take rectifying action, or else something snaps and they actually do have start taking real drugs. Either way, religious or not, some people eventually just callous over, convincing themselves that regardless of God, or their sense of right and wrong, that what they have done, anyone else would have done, and by extension, it is a perfectly normal thing to do and therefore morally and ethically justified. Unfortunately, as anyone who looks closely at morality and ethics will discover, something is never justified wholly by looking at the number of people who might do it. Instead, it is the stupidity of individual ants or lemmings.

As a species we have undergone a remarkable ride along the course of our development. We have moved from base interactions with each other, to centralized hierarchical control that transcends any one of us, and are now moving, in some ways full-circle, toward a more distributed, self-actualizing and self-responsible model. And we bring with us a good deal of weighty baggage. Just as we had tribal or feudal individuals vying for power over us, so do we have power instilled within our centralized systems, and usually feudal lords, in one form or another, dominating them. We like this because we can place blame upon them. We don’t like this because our evolution into the distributed is at odds with a central authority – it interferes with our self-actualization and freedoms, while interestingly, we cling to the centralized because our self-responsible journey is not something we’re entirely comfortable with. It has to be someone else’s fault, right? We were designed pathetic, right? We balk at the ramifications of having to truly be responsible for ourselves and our actions, or inactions.

Coincidentally perhaps, these evolutionary concepts play very well into Libertarian ideals. That is not my intent. I believe many things are best handled by a massive collective effort on our part. It is an ability and strength we have developed over millenia, and it can be utilized for our good. For example, science should not be dominated by profit because the pursuit of profit is not objective, nor is it always entirely about profit, and science relies upon the purest objectivity possible. This includes the medical sciences and pharmaceutical science. Also, it is wise to keep in mind that the free market, contrary to what many believe, is not, in any way, “compassionate”. I believe that being compassionate is important, both individually and collectively. Compassion protects us and brings stability. Those things being said, hurray for Libertarianism!

Religion is a wondrous and powerful thing. It can perpetuate good as well as ill, both in a society, and within ourselves. However, religion is a disservice to all when it is utilized as a simple convenience, which is a contrivance, and merely helps perpetuate a static and even decaying social structure and also helps us not at all, spiritually as an individual. But taken seriously, without the dangerous components of domination and absolutist notions of righteousness, and a focus upon the spiritual, religion can be a compelling and worthwhile force for our betterment in nearly every way. Religion can give us principles to help guide us in larger, abstract ways that help keep us focused upon the betterment of our Earth-bound condition while simultaneously leading us to delve within ourselves to explore the condition we each, individually, find ourselves within. Hmm. I’m feeling myself waft into a dream state of Shirley MacLain, UFOs and Dennis Kucinich. Let’s see, that, or a federal mandate to pay insurance companies, continuing occupations of foreign countries, expanding the police state and torturing people… Not a tough choice, at least for me, but a somewhat sad one.

Remember, the ants run around sniffing each other so that they know what their neighbor has been up to, so that they, in turn, can know what to do as well. And we must come up with a system that pulls from the Great Pool, giving these end users what they need to carry on happily, even before they know what they need. What use is an army of Lawyer Worker Drones to a society that does not claim money as the highest rung on the totem? What value are the top 1% of the wealthiest people who account for the entirety of our economic growth over the past few decades, when what we value is no longer monetary wealth?

In the terms of science, and evolution specifically, we have reached a plateau for the first time in our species’ history where we are no longer bound entirely by the random happenstance of natural selection. We have collectively evolved beyond the pedestrian notions of “the survival of the fittest” where we now can grasp the building blocks and wield the tools that shape our very existence, both present and future, and even the fate of our world with all its multitude of species. What staggering potential! What a monumental responsibility! Can we realistically and ethically allow our course to remain unchanged in its long history of petty domination and inefficient hording? Or is it time, at last, to truly begin re-shaping how we view ourselves at all levels, in more than just speech and intent?

One of the best philosophical excuses for our recent behavior has come to us through hedonistic economists and philosophers, popularized by Ayn Rand, in the form of the oxymoron “enlightened self-interest”. Obviously, the self-interested portion we have no difficulty understanding, adopting and running with. It’s the easy bit. You cannot claim the enlightened part by simply going to a church vending machine after doing something bad in the name of self-interest. To claim the enlightened part, you must act accordingly before you require forgiveness. Furthermore, you if you commit the act, you must also act after to correct the wrong. It is not enough to whisper to an invisible entity, “oh gosh, I’m sorry” and leave the evil in the world, believing yourself absolved. Doing so is one of the worst self-deceptions and disservices to the world. Freedom and Good require individual responsibility, not a scape goat on which to hang our conscience.

Considering our far-reaching capabilities as a species it might well be necessary to now drop the self-interested portion altogether. Enlightened is not change, nor promises of change. Enlightened is not giving money to a charity. Enlightened is not doing something for someone’s benefit. Enlightened is not “working within the system” to make things better over the long course of decades.

Enlightened is a state of being and awareness which can comprise all of those things, but is far more. It does not require secrets – it unravels secrets. It does not require paternalistic law, because each being is its own. It does not require money, because money is law. And it does not require religion, because at the most fundamental levels, they are the same.

Enlightened self-interest is an excuse – the last, best effort of mean domination to survive within simian evolution. Some people know this. Many suspect it. Some can deny it all they like, dragging us all through more painful years, before dying off into an inevitable extinction. And to these people, I ask you, in the kindest terms possible, that if you reproduce, please do not inflict your mindset on our future generations. It is in your own, enlightened self-interest not to do so. For it will only be a few years, after growing into their own being, when your progeny will force you to confront your decision, in one way or another. And they deserve the most and best that we can conceive.