Swarm Intelligence - Quartzsite, Arizona


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In Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe how the withering of the nation-state and the rise of immaterial labor produce a new form of imperial sovereignty, a network power so complete and total that it lacks any exterior. For their landmark sequel, Multitude, they identify a counter-force arising within Empire, a networked swarm that communicates and self-organizes without losing its sense of difference or developing into hierarchical forms of rule. The “multitude,” as they call it, has no center or readily identifiable organization, but is by no means anarchic, possessing a swarm intelligence much as groups of insects or birds do.

Against the dictatorship of Empire, Hardt and Negri believe the multitude can achieve immanence and, in so doing, find some means to self-govern and self-organize. Multitude is the product of a transformation in industrial production from the fixed structures and hierarchies of Fordism to the flexible structures and distributed networks of late capitalism. Hardt and Negri suggest that unlike the Fordist mass, which is defined by sameness, the multitude never ceases to lose its inherent difference. Each agent understands itself not as part of the mass, but as an individual cooperating with others through centerless networks.

Hardt and Negri’s notion of swarm intelligence is indebted to the new science of emergent systems, which proposes to explain how a large number of independent agents, each subscribing to simple rules, can produce complex structures such as the stock market, cells in a body, ant colonies, fractal geometries, cities, beehives, or open source software. As each agent interacts with others, common goals emerge and larger structures form, many of which are well beyond the ability of each individual agent to understand.

Unlike a grouping of insects or geometric structures, the multitude is composed of individuals who can use technologies to communicate. To be sure, as Hardt and Negri point out, the multitude is made possible by contemporary technologies of communications. Telecommunications makes it possible for us to have close relationships with people far away and with people who don’t know us. No longer tied to others unlike ourselves but in close physical proximity, we can easily establish and maintain ties that cross physical and territorial boundaries, carrying on conversations with isolated individuals both near and distant.

This does not mean that face-to-face interaction is obsolete. On the contrary, as geographer Ronald F. Abler writes in his seminal article for Bell Telephone Magazine, “What Makes Cities Important,” “the production, exchange and distribution of information is critical to the function of the modern metropolis...cities are communications systems.” Unlike the city of old, which produced the homogeneous citizen out of disparate immigrants, the contemporary city leads individuals to cultivate difference. But difference can’t be cultivated in isolation. To feel authentic, difference must emerge with the support of others who share in that difference. The result is a proliferation of clusters, groups of people cultivating the same differences and eccentricities, generally existing in discrete, localized spaces but bound together by global networks. In turn, these clusters are made up of overlapping microcommunities, groups dedicated to specific activities and often extreme lifestyles such as Star Trek fandom, Lacanian psychoanalysis, machinima production, Kundalini yoga of the 3HO school, modern architecture, the Lifestyle, No Limit Texas Hold’Em Poker, or bird watching. Dense urban areas offer the possibility for individuals to meet more individuals in similar microcommunities and clusters of like-minded people begin to live together.

But this is the posturban era and just as there is no exterior to Empire, so too no place is left outside of the urban condition. If the 1950s and 1960s were the great decades of suburban growth, when inhabitants in both the United States and Europe fled the city for the suburbs, the last decade has been marked by the rapid expansion of the exurban realm. As suburbs have themselves been colonized by cafés, alternative music stores, and art museums, the city has been invaded by big box stores such as Home Depot and shopping malls. Rural ways of life have, at long last, vanished. Agriculture has either become thoroughly industrialized or a boutique industry, doctorate-holding farmers hand-pressing extra virgin olive oil or handrubbing Waygu cattle to create an Arcadia without hunger or toil, a peasant world that never existed. With the rural gone, exurbia is free to recolonize the land, taking a working landscape and making it a landscape of visual consumption. Exurbia undoes the traditional familial ties of people to the land, replacing them with a new kind of homogeneity based on the urban phenomenon of clustering and micro-communities. For those people so tied to their lifestyles and micro-communities that they identify thoroughly with them, exurbia offers Utopia. Neo-hippies, land speed record fanatics, Klansmen, millionaire skiers, back-country snowboarders, organic cattle ranchers, yachters, recluse billionaires, golfers, dirt bikers, woodworkers, amateur gold miners, and retired nudists all can find exurban communities to suit their lifestyle and live out their fantasies.

If the city is characterized by cultivated diversity, exurbia generally accommodates clusters seeking voluntary homogeneity. Exurbanites generally avoid situations in which they encounter individuals unlike themselves. In exurbia, group identity is formed by a collective sameness rather than group interaction and communication. To be clear, however, exurbanites often only want to immerse themselves temporarily. Exurbia is the realm of the retirement home, the second home, the time-share, and the bed and breakfast. Exurbia is a stopover to dwell in for a few days, a few weeks, or a few decades. Nor is exurbia isolated. Just like everywhere else, exurban areas are networked together, forming virtual clusters of similar areas throughout the world.

But as exurban areas develop over time, their insular nature allows for a new kind of diversity. Adjacent neighborhoods develop and coexist which are radically different, creating almost self-contained worlds where interaction is hardly necessary or likely among neighbors.

In search of an urban form for the multitude, an emergent urbanism, we turn to exurbia. For even as much has been made of medieval towns and villages as examples of emergence, these are far from our present-day reality and the medieval villagers are far from the multitude.