Ant Colony

I’ve found myself several times near-hypnotised by the dancing patterns of ants on a summer day, swirling and pulsating across the ground near an ant nest; if you just stare at one spot and let your eyes defocus a little, the patterns of motion can start to swirl and spin like the dizzying randomness of white noise on an old off-channel CRT TV screen. All that activity, all those individuals working together towards some unseen and unacknowledged collective purpose and all without a single instance of identifiable individuality or subjective experience.

We humans are not so different. What exists of an interior surface and subjectivity may be little more than a convenient aggregation of knowledge and memory, an internal cache and buffer of language and behavioural queues, of autonomous instinctive reflex. Viewed from a distance, our collective behaviours resemble sophisticated instances of ant colonies or termite mounds – none of us needs to know the whole design and plan (in fact, those who claim to understand they know the way the world works and the subsequent best course of collective action rarely possess little more than some crude mental caricature or abbreviation of the world with which to inflict their ignorance upon others).

As a civilisation, such as it is, we resemble one vast disembodied and distributed organism, unified in activity but ultimately without direction or purpose beyond the collective self-gravitational influence of so many individuals attempting to survive each day and propagate or self-replicate this unbroken living thread, to communicate our ideas and identities which, if seen without bias, are rarely ever actually our own beyond that unique recombination and reshuffling of parts and components into novel patterns and configurations which is the very process of living, thinking and existing.

Our subjective selves and interior experience are indicative of the ways the world, the energy and flow of history requires constant novelty (albeit within emergent limits) and choice to remain solvent. We are the decision-engines, the choice-machines and in large enough quantities the form and flow of all those choices create the patterned cycles and overall acceleration of history, of perceived time and significance at our human scale. Our subjective selves are perhaps in some sense the network nodes and storage material for living culture.

We are all living components in a system which actively requires and convinces or rewards us to nurture these little selves of ours (and we all quite happily do so) but even that has become problematic where, intimately engaged with the overall systemic flow and constantly incomplete, hyper-connected logical self-reference of the whole, the degree to which any one of us can sensibly and coherently replicate in microcosm this accelerating narrative complexity can lead to profound isolation, confusion and anxiety.

Yes, you matter and you actively create your own meaning, but the probable reason for this intimate experience of self, of joy and pain and the whole mad swirl of human emotional and intellectual existence, is that the world as a whole can only self-propagate through the collective, kinetic flow that so many individuals fuel through their combined activity and enthusiastic aspiration to expressions and displays of self. The world of our shared experience self-propagates itself and it does so primarily through the dynamic sum of all of our collective activities of self-preservation and our many and diverse assertions of self-identity.

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