Why we often view digital culture through insect metaphors


Read my latest piece for Wired.co.uk in full below or by clicking on this link. The piece also appears in New York’s arstechnica here

Humanity has often looked to the insect world for its technological metaphors, and now for digital inspiration

Swarms. Hive minds. The web*.

It can be hard to avoid talking about our digital culture without using insect metaphors.

Yet for new media theorist Jussi Parikka, it may be more than just a metaphor. Parikka is reader in Media and Design at Winchester School of Art and author of the Anne Friedberg Award-winning Insect Media.

“For me Insect Media started from a realisation and a question: why do we constantly talk about digital culture and networks through insect metaphors?” says Parikka. “Is it just a metaphoric relation? If yes, why do we make sense of high technological culture through references to these small brained, rather ‘dumb’ animals? Or is there even more to this?

Parikka explains that philosopher of communication theory Marshall McLuhan thought about media as extensions of man, but that he sees media as extensions of the non-human.

According to Parikka, the Victorians were the first to spot the relationship between the insect world and the technological one they were creating. Out of this fascination came entomology, the scientific study of insects.

“Victorians were as fascinated with insects as they were with steam,” he says, as they perceived the “parallels, connections and impacts that insects had on human populations and cultures”.


They saw insects as “media machines” that sensed, moved, and indeed communicated in different ways from that of humans. Beehives became a “constant reference” in culture. So the smooth efficiency of the then relatively new Bank of England or the General Post Office was as easily compared to that of “a hive of bees” as are the workings of the internet today.

Other arthropods like spiders were described as builders, engineers and weavers. They were even portrayed as the original inventors of telegraphy, the email of the day.

As a result of this use of metaphor the “ideas of calculation, optimisation and rationality were firmly embodied in the insect world long before the advent of the computer”. So it was only “a small step” to start to see digital culture in a similar way, using the same metaphors, Parikka believes.

“From the perspective of a computer scientist, it is hard not to see ant colonies as massive computation machines, optimising their algorithms, for instance, to find the best food routes.

“After all, insects are hackers and are interpreting the rules to survive.”

However, Parikka began to think that this use of metaphor was more than just a way of our culture perhaps trying to “domesticate these new machines of computation”.

“We need to be aware of the massive amount of things that happen in digital culture which are not human” and instead appear more insectoid.

Advertisement</d”The speed of the flash crash of the stock market was due to the automated software processes; the speed of the signal travelling through the fibre-optic cable; the distributed calculations and packets firing across the globe as part of internet connection…These are much quicker than us humans.”

It has even been argued that today the best technology can be created only by disregarding what it means to be human, rather than as an extension of humanity.

In robotics, Parikka argues that pioneers such as Rodney Brooks started to design insectoid and arachnoid types of robots as they would be much more efficient forms of machine in, for example, the harsh conditions of space missions.

“Think of it through robotics or artificial intelligence: if you want to design a very efficient robot, let’s say for moving, you do not necessarily make it bipedal, with two legs — or even with two eyes, two ears: instead, it is as if robotics had picked up entomology books and realised that insects do it better.

“In fact, insects give clues as to how to robots may evolve, as there are more efficient ways of using the space with, for instance, six legs; or perceiving space with a different mechanism of vision; or distributing your brain power into a hive formation, rather like crowd sourcing.”

Phil Husbands has “some sympathy” with Jussi Parikka’s argument. Husbands is Professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sussex. He is co-director of The Sussex Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics (CCNR) that takes inspiration from insect behaviour and physiology to help with artificial intelligence, robotic control and control of simulated objects in games.

“We are trying to understand some fundamental things and trying to understand them relative to humans can be very unhelpful,” Husbands says.

By observing the behaviour of ants, including the way they sometimes stop and visually scan the world, scientists at Sussex last year were, for example, able to understand the nature of the special “learning walks” ants engage in when exploring new terrain. Then using these “very efficient and simple view-based methods” they were able to come up with a biologically plausible algorithm that could provide robots with “a highly robust and minimal method for navigation in difficult environments like deep space.”

“If we think like a human then it’s going to be very hard work to solve some of these challenges,” according to Husbands. “Instead ants are optimised for interacting with their environment. Their resources are limited but they are very sophisticated.

“So with a very small brain they can do very simple things in very efficient ways which can then be implemented very economically” in robots and artificial intelligence. “It’s very illuminating and chastening to think about insects,” he adds. “It’s a reminder of a very different view of the world.”

For Michael Dieter, a researcher into media and culture at the University of Amsterdam, the significance of Parikka’s work is that it is “an attempt to historically trace the relationship between entomology, or the study of insects, and the development of modern media technologies.”

He describes the goal of Parikka’s work as “to unsettle our commonplace conceptions of the divide between nature and digital culture when it comes to technology and these small animals”.

What he achieves, Dieter believes, “is to demonstrate that there are significant direct relations between the design of modern and contemporary media and the analysis of insect behaviours”.

Parikka is able to do this by a combination of thinking beyond the human world-view and using the new approach of “media archaeology”, which tries to understand the development of our technical communication systems through the technologies that weren’t followed or reached a dead end.

However, for Dieter the relationships between the insect world and our modern wired world have been “forged by capitalism”, and the economic forces that have driven this are something that Parikka “needs to give further thought to”.

For others the criticism of Insect Media may be more straightforward: digital networks don’t grow — they are built.

In the end, for Jussi Parikka, Insect Media is “is not about predicting the future but more about realising that this is a fundamental link in terms of how we see technology from the Victorians to the current high-tech culture. It is as if the most advanced technologies of today have established a link to the ancient evolutionary force of insects.”

Even if our digital networks are built by humans, they still contain within them the same tendencies as those of the ants or bees.

Indeed, Parikka doesn’t want to stop with insects, as other animals — such as dolphins — could be seen as having their own media or methods of communication that connect with the digital world, almost a kind of “cybernetic zoology”.

Ultimately this is a reminder, he believes, that our digital culture exists in a biological context: “It is completely reliant on natural resources, from rare earth minerals to energy.”

So when “soft technologies” such as pesticides are perceived to be causing the colony collapse disorder that is causing the mass extinction of bees, perhaps we should be “gravely worried about that” for the future of our own hive mind.

“Bees then are the canaries in the mine for our own technological culture.”

Jussi Parikka’s latest article on “Insects and Canaries” is due out in a forthcoming edition of Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities

*We realise spiders are arachnids, not insects, but the word “arthropod” isn’t quite so snappy.

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