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I recently read Deborah M. Gordon’s Ant Encounters and thought I’d summarize some thoughts about it. Gordon is a Professor of Biology at Stanford. The book pulls together several decades of research (hers and others’) on the behavior and ecology of ants. In it, Gordon makes nuanced claims about the importance of communication and interaction for distributed collective behavior in clear, non-technical language. Many of the findings should inspire people (like me) interested in understanding the organization of collective behavior in humans.

Gordon argues that ant behavior and colony dynamics encompass a complex system driven by patterns of interactions, information exchange, and environmental influences. She contrasts this with more deterministic accounts of ants prevalent in earlier scientific literature and popular culture. Gordon emphasizes how ants operate by behavioral heuristics and information processing rather than a fixed set of rules or genetically encoded traits.

Picture of an argentine ant
Argentine ant (cc-by-sa, Penarc, Wikimedia Commons)

Consider the division of labor within an ant colony. The prevailing (wrong) view depicts ants born into a pre-specified, genetically determined “caste” which has a clearly-defined task within a hierarchically structured colony. Following this story, the Queen of the colony births out larva who grow into task-specialized sterile adults. Individuals within each caste supposedly possess physical traits that support their specialization as foragers, trash removers, larva-tenders, patrollers, or whatever. Each individual supposedly pursues their specialized task tirelessly until death.

It turns out that this account reflects a mixture of reasonable misinterpretation and fantastical thinking. First off, Gordon notes, ants change tasks within their life course. Today’s larva-tender may be tomorrow’s forager. These changes do not entail biological changes within each ant (although there seems to be evidence that ants do tend to adopt specific tasks at specific stages of their lives within a colony), but instead reflect responses to interactions with other members of the colony and external forces shaping those interactions. In a younger, less populous colony, ants may change tasks in response to immediate needs and threats that arise suddenly. In larger, more mature colonies where things are less likely to change suddenly, many ants may have more stable activities. Some ants in large colonies even literally sit around doing nothing because the information they receive from their nest-mates indicates that the colonies needs are being met. None of this is fixed by genetic encoding or hierarchical commands.

Second, Gordon shows how ants respond probabilistically to local stimuli. Individual ants, it turns out, act a lot like heuristic distributed sensors or nodes in a communications networkeach with some likelihood of changing its behavior depending on the feedback it receives from its environment. They are not automatons with deterministic programming to pursue a single-minded course of action.

Third, Gordon shows how colonies as a whole change in reaction to their environments and collective interactions. If one colony finds itself in proximity to another, the individuals within it may alter how much collective effort is dedicated to specific tasks depending on the species, size, and temperament of its neighbors. Individual ants respond to the number of nest-mates and neighbors they encounter. If their last ten encounters were with foragers from their home nest returning with food to feed the larval brood, they may continue to go about their business uninterrupted. As the portion of recent interactions includes outsiders or nest-mates responding frantically to an unwelcome intruder of some sort, the probability rises that the next ant will change its behavior in response (maybe to start running around in a panic or bite an intruder).

A picture of harvester ants
Harvester ants collecting seeds (cc-by-sa Donkey Shot, Wikimedia Commons)

Through many examples, Gordon conveys how patterns of collective ant behavior emerge and adapt to local circumstances without a centralized coordination mechanism or hierarchy of control. She describes this almost entirely without recourse to the jargon of complexity theory or complex systems research.

A concrete, measured, and example-driven account of how actually existing complex systems work is maybe the most impressive achievement of the book. Many texts discuss complexity in human and ecological systems, but none that I have read do so with the clarity of Ant Encounters. While I should read more books on these topics, more people in my little corner of the research world should read Gordon’s work too.

Ant Encounters ultimately left me excited to pursue some of the potential extensions and connections between Gordon’s work and research on human social systems and organizations. For example, I’d love to follow up on her comment that higher interaction frequency is associated with colony growth or survival (I currently forget which). Would such a finding hold up in the context of human organizations? If so, what would it look like and mean in the context of building effective peer production systems? Gordon has also written elsewhere about some of the potential connections between ant behavior, human organization, communication protocols. Recent findings from Gordon and her collaborators show how ants follow a set of behavior protocols very similar to those encoded in the TCP specification (apparently, she likes to refer to this idea as “the Anternet“). I’m eager to read more of the scientific publications from Gordon and her collaborators to understand these ideas more deeply and to see how well they travel when applied to a species I know a little bit more about.

Jackie Robinson Day (Re-estimated)

When major league baseball held its opening day on April 15 in 1947, a 28 year-old infielder made his highly-anticipated debut at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He would go on to record an extraordinary season and career worthy of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1947, a batting title and Most Valuable Player award in 1949, and a World Series title in 1955. He also produced two seasons that rank among the top 100 ever (by the metric of Wins-Above-Replacement among position players).

Jackie Robinson (1954 public domain photo by Bob Sandberg for Look Magazine).


Looking at the box score, Jackie Robinson didn’t make an overwhelming impact on the outcome of his first game, but his presence on the field challenged the racist status quo of professional baseball and American society. What’s more, the intense public-ness of the challenge made Robinson’s presence a symbol and a spectacle: of the roughly 26,500 spectators in attendance at Ebbets field, an estimated 14,000 were black. I cannot imagine what it was like to be at that game — one of those rare places and moments where it becomes possible to see an historic social transformation as it unfolds. Just the thought gives me goosebumps.

Every major league player, coach, and umpire will don Robinson’s iconic number 42 in recognition today. Watching games and highlights from Jackie Robinson Days past, I’ve been troubled by how easily such observances drift into a hagiographic reverie that sometimes even take on a self-congratulatory tone. Stories of Robinson’s incredible athletic and personal accomplishments sometimes efface his struggle against horrible, violent, and aggressive responses. Worse yet, the stories usually play down the persistence of racism and its effects today. Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day out of a strange combination of guilt and pride; knowledge and ignorance; resistance and complicity.

As I indicated earlier, Robinson’s performance and impact qualified him for the Hall of Fame along multiple dimensions. However, another way to think about his unique contribution to baseball is to consider how such virulent racism likely affected his play and how unbelievably, mind-blowingly great a player he might have been under less racist conditions.

There’s no obviously valid way to construct a counterfactual Jackie Robinson, but research on the phenomenon of stereotype threat suggests a very simple, naive statistical adjustment strategy. To paraphrase a bunch of scholarly studies and the (pretty extensive) Wikipedia article, stereotype threat reduces the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups, largely by inducing feelings of anxiety.

Stereotype threat affects various kinds of behaviors including athletic achievement. A 1999 study by Jeff Stone and colleagues (pdf) estimates the effects of some typical forms of stereotype threat on a sample of black men’s athletic performance, reporting that race-based priming resulted in a 23.5% worse outcome on a miniature golf (!) task than a control condition with no priming.

Consider that the priming in this Stone et al. study was done in a fairly polite, impersonal, non-hateful, non-threatening way in relation to a mini-golf task with absolutely nothing at stake. Consider just how personal, vitriolic, and violent the responses to Jackie Robinson were — many of them coming directly from opposing players and “fans” who went to great pains to heckle him in the middle of at-bats, physically target him with violent slides and more on the field, or issue death threats to him and his family. Consider how much Robinson had at stake and just how public his successes and his failures would have been.


Some people may like to imagine (and filmmakers may like to depict) that the hatred helped to motivate and focus Robinson, spurring him to even greater performance. Similarly, part of the mystique of the greatest athletes is that they seem to empty their heads of all the noise and distractions that would debilitate the rest of us at precisely those moments when the stakes and pressures are highest. It’s easy to say that Robinson didn’t respond to the pressure in the same way as most humans would, but the research on stereotype threat suggests that it probably affected him on the field anyway. Just being reminded — even in very subtle, socially-coded ways — that you belong to a socially excluded group reduced athletic performance by nearly a quarter. The sort of cognitive burden that comes along with being singled out and targeted by the kind of racial hatred that Robinson experienced must be orders of magnitude greater. What sort of impact would this burden have had on Robinson’s play?

Now, go look at the stat lines again from those two spectacular seasons (1949, WAR 9.6,  and 1951, WAR 9.7) that Robinson had and imagine them without the stress, the pain, the distraction of all that hate. Be a little bit generous and inflate the WAR statistics by the same 23.5% that Stone et al.’s subjects performance dropped in a laboratory study in ridiculously low-key conditions. Under these assumptions, Robinson’s two greatest seasons might have yielded WAR of 11.9 and 12.0 respectively — easily placing them both among the top 10 seasons by a position player ever.


This quarter, I am teaching a graduate seminar called “The Practice of Scholarship” that is required for second-year students in the Northwestern MTS and TSB programs. Following Mako’s lead, I am using the Community Data Science Collective wiki to host the (editable) syllabus. In other words, I am eating to my heart’s content.

dog food.
© 2006 chrismetcalfTV (cc-by-2.0)

We had our first class session yesterday and it went really well. The goal for the quarter is for every student to prepare a manuscript for submission to a peer reviewed venue. I told the students that the course will serve as a hybrid writing boot camp and extended group therapy session. There will be much workshopping and iteration and sharing of feelings. There will also be polite, friendly, and unyielding pressure to produce scholarly work of exceptional quality.

In keeping with the wikified ethos, much of the course schedule remains tbd at this point, so please drop me a line with comments, suggestions, or pointers to great readings that brilliant, interdisciplinary, empirical social scientists and HCI researchers like my students would appreciate.

Back in the blogging game

Hello world! It’s been a while since I’ve done any blogging, but I’ve been wanting to return for some time now, so here we are. My old blog was a hodge podge that hovered at the edges of my research. Current events featured prominently, especially those having to do with governance in online communities, knowledge production and access, and research ideas. I have a few different goals for this blog.

A new day dawns for blogging on the shores of Lake Michigan…



First, since it’s part of the Community Data Science Collective site, I plan to talk about our research, affiliates, community events, and related topics. Second, I want to use the blog as a space to sketch out research ideas more regularly. When I blogged previously, I was a graduate student. I had more unstructured time in which to brainstorm and reflect. The transition to faculty and the subsequent accumulation of responsibilities, projects, students, and commitments has left me seeking time to think broadly and with less structure. I need a semi-structured space and time to do so. As a result, I return to blogging.

This relates to a third goal: a minimum of one post per week. In the old days, Mako coordinated the Cambridge instance of Iron Blogger, a group blogging accountability project in which all the participants agreed to write one post per week or pay $5 into a common pot (that we then used to throw a party whenever it got big enough). The incentives sound misaligned, but the semi-public commitment, a deadline, and the nominal material cost of failure got a weekly post out of me roughly 90% of the time.

There is no iron blogger group in Chicago (yet?), but I’m going to recreate the structure with a little public accountability infrastructure with some friends. So far, Rachel and I have committed to posting weekly and tracking our posts. If others want to join, we can add further infrastructure as needed. No fines for now, but if I fail to post frequently between now and the end of the academic year, I’ll revisit.

Finally, since I do a lot more mentoring and teaching now than I used to, I imagine that these activities will occupy a fair amount of my attention as well. I feel more comfortable publishing material about my teaching now than when I first started at Northwestern. I am also realizing that my approach to teaching would lend itself really well to blogging as I am continually tinkering with the structure of my assignments, readings, evaluations, and lessons. A space to reflect on my experiences more actively and to solicit feedback from students and others seems like a helpful thing.

That’s it for this opening post. Thanks for reading.