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Open Source, P2P, Weblogs, and Slime Mold

Posted by brhubart on July 2, 2003 at 11:18 AM PDT

How often have you asked yourself, "What do Open Source software, peer-to-peer file sharing, and Weblogs have in common with, say, a big lump of disgusting mold?" Never? Neither have I. But that's no reason to leave the question unanswered.

In a chapter in Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, author Steven Johnson describes the apparent intelligence behind the activities of slime mold. Slime mold is just what it sounds like -- imagine a school cafeteria desert that's about three weeks past its prime and decides to venture out into the world. That's right, slime mold is self-propelled goo. But that's not the interesting part. (For more on slime mold, check out the link.)

Slime mold is actually a collection of tiny, individual mold cells that get together when the mood strikes them to form into a single unit and move to a different neighborhood, where there's more of whatever it is slime mold needs to be healthy and happy. There's no central brain, no single point of consciousness, no hulked-out single cell with a big ego telling the other cells what to do. Each cell acts in its own self-interest. From this individual action emerges a collective intelligence, in this case a free-ranging aspic on a mission.

And so it is with OSS, P2P, and Blogs. The genuinely mind-boggling thing about these concepts is that never before in human history has there been a way to channel and capture the collective intelligence that emerges from the utter chaos of millions and millions of human brains all flailing away at who-knows-what. It's grid computing, using human grey matter instead of PCs. OK, maybe CB radio came close, but...

Think about what has already happened. The music business is in a major snit because the vast music listening public has discovered a way around cookie-cutter radio stations and other mass-media outlets that dictate what's hot and what's not. (Don't get me started...) If the business is to survive it must learn to tap into the emerging intelligence of the file-sharing community in order to identify the real markets. (Hint: there's more than one.)

OSS, P2P, and Blogs are collaborative concepts that embrace chaos. They reveal chaos as nothing more than a collection of problems that will solve themselves -- if we allow them to, if we learn to recognize the patterns in the eddies and currents of the human enterprise. These concepts and technologies allow us to finally catch up to slime mold, which figured this stuff out a long time ago.

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