Sunday, June 30, 2013

The superorganism awakes

Earlier today I came into the kitchen and Kate was listening to a Radiolab rebroadcast called "Emergence," and they were talking about the way that ants individually are pretty hopeless creatures, but ants in a colony are capable of astonishing feats of purposive action.

An excavation of a massive ant colony,

(This idea has been on my mind a lot lately, showing up in my talk "Is God on our side?" and also in the paper I'm finishing up on money in a biophysical conception of economics. It's also one that's lain in my brain for a while, since about 25 years ago when my brother gave me The mind's I, which has some essays making a similar point.)

Then at dinner Kate mentioned the CDC's use of Twitter to see where flu is spreading (here's a paper from a couple of years ago analyzing the potential). Doctors already report flu cases to the CDC, so that public-health officials can see the movement of the disease and try to craft better containment measures. But it turns out that Twitter allows them to get a jump on the information.

People Tweet everything, so when they're coughing and their muscles are sore, they Tweet about that. If you see a spike in those Tweets, there's a high chance you're seeing the leading edge of the flu.

But while people Tweet their pain right away, many of us don't go to the doctor until we realize just how sick we are, so it might be a week or more before our doctor has any information to send to the CDC. So careful analysis of Twitter allows the CDC to learn about the flu a week faster than before.

If we consider the whole society as an organism, it's as if we're developing a better nervous system. "Look at that--my toe is on fire. It used to take me 10 days to figure that out. Now it only takes three. Progress!"


What are we evolving toward, anyway?,19434/

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