Ant Nests and Human Politics

December 13, 2011

Political Theory


Ant nests can be pretty impressive. (The paper is here if you’re interested.)

Plaster cast of an ant nest which is taller than the person standing next to it.

What makes it more impressive is that such a coherent structure emerges out of many simple actors working together. This seems analogous to how democracy perhaps should work. It is an ant equivalent of John Mill’s democracy-fostering marketplace of ideas: positions judged on their merits in order that the best ideas form the majority of opinions, and the best course of action for the community is taken. To me, this seems the antithesis of contemporary party politics. What I see in modern politics is people taking sides, allowing group membership to forestall critical thought about the issues in question. In an ant colony, mass individual thought leads to constructiveness. Groupthink – in opposition to mass individual thought – can and does inhibit and damage collective structure. The ready example I point to here is political parties or movements.

I understand that assumptions are useful shortcuts in thinking, and for time-critical thought I can see how they can be essential in providing good reaction time. That said, I sometimes find myself thinking differently of peoples’ character when I learn of their political party affiliations. In most cases the knowledge of political party membership is not time-critical, so assumptions about their beliefs based on my understanding of the group they choose to support seems prone to great error. Why assume what someone stands for instead of asking?

I wish I had more historical perspective on this, but I think as communication has become faster and easier as the use of Twitter and blogging news platforms become more prevalent, perhaps response time is valued over fact-checking and thoughtful analysis. Many times I’ve seen a controversy spring up and go viral, only to be debunked by someone with a careful eye and half an hour to spare. The story that echos around seems to be that with the most sensational title and shortest time between event and publication. Thoughtful analysis and fact-checking are done by other, much slower news outlets – Ars Technica comes to mind – while blogs stir up mud that gets repeated by 24-hour news channels and eventually drags itself onto Tosh.0. Was there a time when people were more reluctant to jump on unsubstantiated stories? I wonder if the simplification of news came with the decline of daily hour-long world news summaries. (An example of this is the NewsHour.)

What do you think? Are these phenomena of focusing primarily on response time and preferring groupthink to individual thought rather recent? What are they prompted by?

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