Conversation + Autocatalysis

by Brian Haven
@ 5:20 PM

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Autocatalysis is the last of the four themes comprising Conversation (the first concept of the Ontology Of Participation). Shared conversations become the fuel for further conversations, initiating a self-replicating process that ensures the preservation of the activity.

This idea of autocatalysis comes from biology, but is an interesting application in the context of participation. Stuart Kauffman explains it from a biological perspective:

What I call a collectively autocatalytic system is one in which the molecules speed up the very reactions by which they themselves are formed: A makes B; B makes C; C makes A again... if a sufficiently diverse mix of molecules accumulates somewhere, the chances that an autocatalytic system — a self-maintaing and self-reproducing metabolism — will spring forth becomes a near certainy. If so, then the emergence of life may have been much easier than we have supposed.
(Stuart Kauffman, At Home In The Universe, 1995 — pages 49-50)

In comparison, conversations with a product (artifact, service, system, environment) can grow to a point that they self-replicate, initiating a community.

For instance, Smart Mobs (similar to Flash Mobs, which I talked about in a previous post) exist when individuals gather in a specific place, typically a political rally or protest, and utilize mobile technology to coordinate efforts. When conflict arises during these events, individuals can use their mobile phones to share information about the movement of authorities to avoid capture. The situation in which these events occur, in combination with the available technology and the mindset of the people present, serve as catalysts for the Smart Mob behavior. The coexistence of all of these factors causes the behavior to replicate itself to the point that the actions of the technologically linked mob take on a life of its own, almost becoming a living organism.

[WTO protests 10 (Battle of Seattle) from djbones on flickr]
For example, consider the Smart Mob example in Howard Rheingold's book by the same name. In 1999, demonstrators protesting the World Trade Organization (WTO), used mobile phones, text messaging, and websites to elude authorities in what came to be known as the "Battle of Seattle." According to the report Black Flag Over Seattle, by Paul de Armond (via Smart Mobs, 2003, by Howard Rheingold — page 161):

The cohesion of the Direct Action Network was partly due to their improvised communications network assembled out of cell phones, radios, police scanners and portable computers. Protesters in the street with wireless Palm Pilots were able to link into continuously updated web pages giving reports from the streets. Police scanners monitored transmissions and provided some warning of changing police tactics. Cell phones were widely used.
(Paul de Armond, Black Flag Over Seattle)

The report further states:

In addition to the organizers' all-points network, protest communications were leavened with individual protesters using cell phones, direct transmissions from roving independent media feeding directly onto the internet, personal computers with wireless modems broadcasting live video, and a variety of other networked communications. Floating above the tear gas was a pulsing infosphere of enormous bandwidth, reaching around the planet via the Internet.
(Paul de Armond, Black Flag Over Seattle)

As you can see in this example, the coordinated efforts of the demonstrators led to a Smart Mob that fed on itself, taking on a life of it's own.


21 Jul 2009
Force is the third of the four themes comprising Conversation...

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