Monte Python’s Brian reminds us that we (most of us, anyhow) “are all individuals.” Rugged individualism is the hallmark of many cultures — most notably of Americans who celebrate a pioneering spirit borne of its expansionist 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps some day I’ll dedicate some thoughts to that topic. But today I’d like to draw your thoughts to work-in-the-many.
Anthropologists sometimes debate whether homo sapiens are social animals like apes or loners like bears. I tend to lean to the social animal side of the argument. At this point, as you project where today’s installment is leading, you’re likely to roll your eyes in anticipation of yet another one of those homilies about teams. Teams are all the rage these days, and appropriately so.
However, today I want to talk about swarms. Yes: humans swarm, though the collected entity is rarely as physically identifiable as the apiarian analogue. Such structures have long existed in human culture. Religious denominations often fit this model, as do political parties. Swarms long pre-date the Internet, though the Internet has brought life to swarms with instant communication and connectedness that were unthinkable five years ago. I dare say that will remain a timeless claim no matter how far in the future you are reading this article. That’s why swarms are so important: our swarm-connectedness is bound to grow over the decades.
Back in 2000, Dick Gabriel’s OOPSLA keynote talked of the importance of swarm development in software. Open source had already been in full swing for many years. Forget pair programming: bug density plummets under the gaze of thousands of pairs of eyes. I can launch a question into the swarm about an Apple API and get a useful answer in minutes or hours. That was unthinkable even from dedicated help desks just a few years back.
Join a swarm — not a club — of thousands or millions of people. Clubs are about stature; swarm members are anonymous. Clubs are social and fun; while there’s a bit of that in a swarm, it’s not really part of the swarm dynamic. Clubs just gather; good swarms do work. Yet some swarms generate identities that emerge at a larger scale. The open source movement is a shining example — millions of anonymous workers building some of the greatest software on earth. The pattern community is another, and while it is like a bed of tulips where much the same flowers recur on an annual basis, it carries a vision of a shared worldwide identity. It is perhaps a club in transition to becoming a swarm if history so favors it.
Contemporary engineers are team creatures. Today’s engineering career path follows much of history as individuals hop the stepping stones from one team identity to another. For all their good, however, teams are remarkably insular. They interact tens times as much among themselves as with members of other teams. More social progress comes from swarms than teams.
It’s important to note that “swarm” is not a synonym for “good.” While mutual trust characterizes some swarms, it is hardly germane to all of them. Invoking Gabriel again, we note “dangerous waterholes” in the savannah where both the lion and gazelle “swarm” to drink. If the lion kills the gazelle there, then the gazelles will stop coming there at all and will eventually be wiped out for want of water. Tune swarm parameters just right and you get mass movement psychology — a cancerous, collective insanity.
Are you a part of a swarm? Know what kind of swarm you belong to, or swarm into a good one.