Francis Heylighen on stigmergic organization and the economics of information

Heylighen discusses the role of stigmergy and the open access economy. Francis Heylighen’s recent work Why is Open Access Development so Successful? Stigmergic organization and the economics of information presents a straight forward and compelling case for stigmergy as an underlying mechanism in the expansion of what he terms, ‘open access development’.Heylighen provides three characteristics in order to designate information as “open access”. The information must be:

  • non-proprietary,
  • part of a creative commons free to access, use, and in many cases modify, and
  • consisting purely of information that can be duplicated without limit.


Recognising the inherent connections between stigmergy and the workings of the World Wide Web, Heylighen reviews the basic process:

…termites do not communicate about who is to do what how or when. Their only communication is indirect: the partially executed work of the ones provides information to the others about where to make their own contribution. In this way, there is no need for a centrally controlled plan, workflow, or division of labor.


and connects it to Internet-based processes:

…any new or revised document or software component uploaded to the site of a community is immediately scrutinized by the members of the community that are interested to use it. When one of them discovers a shortcoming, such as a bug, error or lacking functionality, that member will be inclined to either solve the problem him/herself, or at least point it out to the rest of the community, where it may again entice someone else to take up the problem.


Heylighen draws on the autocatalyitc nature of stigmergy to explain the success of various projects in the open access domain (Wikipedia, Open Source Software etc) by recognising that

…the more high quality material is already available on the community site, the more people will be drawn to check it out, and thus the more people are available to improve it further. Thus, open access can profit from a positive feedback cycle that boosts successful projects.


However he also notes that

A possible disadvantage of such “rich get richer” dynamics is that equally valuable, competing projects, because of random fluctuations or sequence effects, may fail to get the critical mass necessary to “take off”.


Finally, Heylighen recommends:

To be able to fully compete with the established market-based system, moreover, the still very young open access movement will need to further learn from its experiences, addressing its remaining weaknesses and building further on its strengths. This will in particular require developing better standards and rules, and more powerful software solutions for harnessing stigmergy and allocating recognition and feedback—the main drivers behind the success of open access according to the present analysis.


In all, Heylighen provides a sound introduction to stigmergy and its relationship to the recent development of peer production / open access, which I hope will serve to generate interest and research into the role of stigmergic coordination of human affairs.


–Oh, and he cites my work Stigmergic Collaboration: The Evolution of Group Work… which is cool ;-).

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