* 200 articles. Two years. Whelk. The best of Upsideclown. Might be reprinted.

Small Things

14 March 2002
James has never studied entomology.

Ants are Small Things. It is hard to tell what they feel, think, say, or indeed if they do so at all. The tendency is to assume that they are simply minute automata; pre-programmed and pre-determined to act a certain way and therefore have no free will, no thought, no emotion.

We assume this because they are individually weak, tiny, non-threatening little specs on the oil painting of life. The kind if spec that an art restorer would meticulously paint over, guessing that some stubborn powder had at some point been spilt by an uncaring owner, before locking the painting away in an atmosphere-controlled guarded cabinet, never to be glanced upon by human eyes again.

We assume this because they are plain and silent, and only walk in single file. We all know walking in single file hides their numbers. This could be useful for the ant.

We assume this because they have no art, no pornographic waste of art, and no music. They have no enjoyment, no intoxication, no fun.

Individually, an ant would get lost on a plain piece of paper. Individual ants are single-minded goal-oriented beings. Their lives are solely driven by how much value they can add to the overall success of the whole group. Put a single ant in a room and it would probably die there. This behaviour adds to our assumption that they are stupid, mindless individuals, and yet we marvel at the sophistication of a whole collection. Put an entire ant farm in a room and watch them take it over and chase you out.

Collectively, ants can build bridges, dam rivers, and take down prey millions of times their size. It there a critical mass? Is it linear? If you place a larger number of ants together are they more likely to solve puzzles put before them. Seemingly, they are the opposite of humans. Put a large group of humans together and you get chaos, mob rule, anarchy. Put a large group of ants together and they win. We'd better hope they decide to take us on ship to ship, since they're way too small for our turbo-lasers. One-on-one, ants aren't up to much.

At least we're big.

With enough ants, would they form a utopian collective, or would the rich ones exploit the poor ones with a capitalist state? Would they factionalise and segment, or unify? Would they become more diverse or more uniform?

Think about linear collective ant intelligence. If we put enough ants in a room would they write plays, fly to the moon? The standard answer is no, they wouldn't because ants are singularly instinctual creatures. Genetically programmed, as a computer would be, by simple survival instincts, and the end result of a large number of simple creatures put together is a complex hierarchical society with advanced problem-solving capabilities.

But think about this. Why should a collection of ants perform appear collectively more intelligent than the sum of its individual parts? For this to happen, there must be some other force at work.

An ant will, without any hesitation, lay down its life for the good of the colony. An ant colony can bridge small rivers and crevices by forming bridges made up of their own bodies. If a bridge is required, enough ants will join together to form it, and each individual will die in place. The key to ants' collective success is their loyalty.

Two questions must be answered to explain this behaviour: First, how does the individual ant know what action will be of the greatest benefit to the colony. Second, why does the ant perform that act instead of acting to preserve its individual self?

It is very difficult to speculate about what type and method of communication ants use. It is documented that whenever two ants meet, they do communicate through the use of their antennae, and possibly also through the sense of smell. In the instant of two ants meeting, the spark of the mutual touch is a sudden sharing of two pieces of information. The next time either of those two ants meet any other ant, the information they pass on will be different. In the middle of a colony where the density of ants is very high, there are most likely thousands of ants whose sole purpose is the relaying of information - they never actually venture outside to the real world. What results is an immense organic network, relaying information very quickly, and which is not dependent on any central repository or command centre. That's how all the ants know what to do when and to whom.

It is even harder to speculate about the decision-making process within one ant. There is clearly some sort of survival instinct in an individual ant. Try to stamp on one, and it will run away. In order to give up its life for the good of the colony, this must override the survival instinct. There are ways this can happen, but I don't think you'll like them:

Religion. Ants may have some kind of religion that makes those that sacrifice themselves for the colony are worshipped as martyrs. The decision to die for the sake of the bridge would then be based on how many virgins you're promised in the next world.

Deception. The colony may lie. Rumours could fly around the colony about how great it would be if you go out to the end of the incomplete bridge, and stay there until you starve to death. Since ant's don't have much in the way of facial expression, it would be hard to deny that the hundreds already there didn't go in a fit a pure orgasmic ecstasy.

Coercion. The ant-bridge martyrs may have had a family back home at the farm which was being held to ransom. Messages could fly across the network saying if you don't get yo' segmented ass out on to that bridge, you can masticate goodbye to mummy and daddy. Or something along those lines.

Patriotism. The colony is great in its purest form. A bit like religion basically, except that patriotism does not promise you everlasting peace in the afterlife. Just that some people will shoot some guns and play the bugle at your funeral.

Whatever it is they do, it works.


This is the fucking archive

Current clown:

18 December 2003. George writes: This List

Most recent ten:

15 December 2003. Jamie writes: Seven Songs
11 December 2003. Dan writes: Spinning Jenny
8 December 2003. Victor writes: Rock Opera
4 December 2003. Matt writes: The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia
1 December 2003. George writes: Charm
27 November 2003. James writes: On Boxing
24 November 2003. Jamie writes: El Matador del Amor; Or, the Man who Killed Love
20 November 2003. Dan writes: Rights Management
17 November 2003. Victor writes: Walking on Yellow
13 November 2003. Matt writes: Disintermediation
(And alas we lost Neil, who last wrote Cockfosters)

Also by this clown:

27 November 2003. James writes: On Boxing
16 October 2003. James writes: Jakesy's School of Urban Driving
24 September 2003. James writes: Chapter One
4 September 2003. James writes: The Silicon Soul
14 August 2003. James writes: A Room With 100 Seats
24 July 2003. James writes: English For Beginners
3 July 2003. James writes: Coldplay are crap. Discuss.
9 June 2003. James writes: It Takes All Sorts
22 May 2003. James writes: Lesson 2: Buying his Gran for a tenner
1 May 2003. James writes: Rosencrantz and Leytonstone
10 April 2003. James writes: Character Building
20 March 2003. James writes: So This Is It. What Are We Going To Do About It?
27 February 2003. James writes: Street Level Zero
6 February 2003. James writes: Reference: James Noteworthy
16 January 2003. James writes: Kissing George Clooney for just £99!
26 December 2002. James writes: Hongkong In Four Tableaux
5 December 2002. James writes: We Are Your Idea
14 November 2002. James writes: The Knight Of Spring Fervent
24 October 2002. James writes: Go On, Be Honest
7 October 2002. James writes: Cold Comfort
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22 August 2002. James writes: Seed Investment
1 August 2002. James writes: We Are QPR
11 July 2002. James writes: The Road to Ossuna
20 June 2002. James writes: Pret A Teleporter
27 May 2002. James writes: A Play On Words
2 May 2002. James writes: Labour Saving Device
8 April 2002. James writes: Beggaring Belief
14 March 2002. James writes: Small Things
18 February 2002. James writes: Drop Dead Letters
24 January 2002. James writes: High-Rise Rhapsody
27 December 2001. James writes: My drift's too hip to resist.
6 December 2001. James writes: My Lord Has No Nose
12 November 2001. James writes: A Job For Life
18 October 2001. James writes: Which is the cleverest animal?
24 September 2001. James writes: Interview With An Automatum
30 August 2001. James writes: Each To Their Own
6 August 2001. James writes: An Escape, In Sonata Form
12 July 2001. James writes: Truckloads Of Goodies
18 June 2001. James writes: There's No Such Thing As A Coincidence
24 May 2001. James writes: It's All True - The Paper Says So
30 April 2001. James writes: A Letter From Prisyn
16 April 2001. James writes: I Quit
15 March 2001. James writes: An Essay In Procrastination
15 February 2001. James writes: Confessions Of An English Sand-Eater
22 January 2001. James writes: The Future And The Pasta
28 December 2000. James writes: Never drink with men in red
4 December 2000. James writes: The Underground
9 November 2000. James writes: Right answer. Wrong answer
16 October 2000. James writes: The March of Proudfoot: Part I
21 September 2000. James writes: You haven't got a chance
28 August 2000. James writes: Bad, man. Wicked
24 July 2000. James writes: I play games with street lamps

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