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🔮 web3 Is In Our Nature II 🌱
Lessons from Our Natural World for Building a Decentralized Internet
There’s a new version of the Internet coming down the tubes. Its decentralized ways can inject transparency and fairness into the uneven digital landscape we’ve somehow come to tolerate. New emergent design principles are informing the coordination effort necessary to build this evolution into existence. The masterplan for how we proceed to web3 is embedded deep in our ecosystem.
This is Part II of an ongoing quest to understand the future of the Internet. For Part I, head on over here.
The House That Termites Built
It was the summer of 1989 and Zimbabwean architect Mick Pearce was hot and cold on his latest project. He had just taken on the country’s most ambitious real-estate development to-date. The Eastgate Center in the capital city of Harare was drafted at a sprawling 350,000 square feet of office space and retail. But there was a problem. The daily temperature fluctuations in the elevated region — up to 50℉ daily — made traditional heating/cooling systems wildly cost-prohibitive. That was just the tip of Pearce’s complicationberg. Even if the developers were down to throw money at the problem, the sheer volume of hourly recycled air would turn the prospective building’s internal environment into a pollution air trap. And even if the pollution was shrugged off, the additional cost of imported parts would deliver a deathblow to Zimbabwe’s foreign exchange reserves.
Pearce headed out for a walk, to meditate on the challenge. Strolling beyond the city limits, he peered across the landscape, taking in the sights and sounds of his homeland. Punctuating the landscape were familiar termite mounds, 20-foot tall spires of dirt termites use to survive the climatic swings of the high desert. Mick had an idea. Over the next 7 years, Pearce Projects copied-and-pasted nearly every aspect of the ingenious termite structures on to the now world-renowned Eastgate Center.
Like many of nature’s innovations, the termitary is imaginative by necessity. The self-regulating structures are extensions of the individual termite’s metabolism and a truly magnificent example of symbiosis. The termite’s food source is a very specific species of fungi which lives deep inside the termitary. For the fungi to live, the temperature must cruise at a positively balmy 87.8℉. As a thank you for the hospitality, the fungi regulates CO2 levels inside the structure. The system as a whole can also breathe. The ups and downs in external temperatures cause exhaust air to escape via chimney stacks, which simultaneously draws in oxygen-rich fresh air.
The bio-inspired Eastgate Center boasts a passive heating and cooling system operating in almost the exact same way as the termitaries. It stores the day’s heat at night and the night’s cold at day. The building minimizes heat absorption during the day by mimicking the termitary’s wall thickness, hooded windows, light-colored paints and external shading. A specially-designed basement gathers any heat that does get absorbed. That heat is then released at night via a labyrinth of ventilation pipes, ultimately escaping via airflow stacks positioned vertically throughout the Center. The design saves the Eastgate building owners $3.5MM in ventilation costs per year. The designs are open for everyone to copy.
We humans have learned to torture nature for her secrets. By doing so, we believe we have attained autonomy as a species. With our technologies leading the way, we declare god-status. How could we not? We harness the power of the sun, control weather patterns and rearrange the very genetic building blocks of life. This hubris though forces us to overlook a crucial consideration: we are so enamored with our cleverness, we forget to acknowledge that every innovation (ever) was built according to nature’s instructions. We have looked to nature for answers to our problems throughout our entire existence.
Biomimetics is the study of just this: the copying of models, systems and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. Biomimetics is the conscious emulation of life’s genius.
Biomimetics serves us particularly well when we are faced with the unknown. As we feel our way around in the darkness of an unseeable future, we look to nature to light the way forward.
It is early-days for the third version of the Internet, but things are moving swiftly. We are working to build an entirely new paradigm for communications and human coordination. We can reap the benefits of decentralized protocols and even our society’s severely tilted playing field.
With that, here is an exploration of how organisms harness decentralized protocols to survive and thrive. I present them without conjecture.
This is a living article! If you’ve got an example of decentralization in the wild, hit the comments and I’ll get it in here!
Decentralization in the Wild
🐝 Western Honey Bees - Apis Mellifera
Western honey bees abandon their old hives every year, usually between March and May. Upon departure, the 30,000-strong swarm temporarily gathers at a nearby location. It’s now showtime for a specially-chosen 5% of the colony. While the rest of the swarm abides, scouts are deployed to search the surrounding area for viable hive sites.
Upon returning to the swarm, the scouts take turns competing in a curious dance marathon of sorts. The ‘waggle dance’ consists of wing buzzing and abdomen vibrating in a figure-eight pattern.
Beyond the Spring Break-esque spectacle of it all, waggle-dancers produce and release two chemicals into the air. The dance is designed to drum up attention for their potential hive site. The dance style indicates the location of the hive; more upward motion means closer to the sun. The longer the dance, the more attention the scout attracts, the more recruits fly off to check out the advertised hive site.
As 5 or 10 scouts head out, the dance continues. Once 30 - 40 other bees commit, a quorum threshold is reached. This is a crucial phenomenon in decentralized behavior. It indicates the minimum consensus necessary for a larger group to commit to a decision. Once that threshold is met, the swarm commits en masse to the new site and the building of a new hive can commence.
🐜 Ants - Leptothorax Albipennis
Ants trigger a similar consensus choice by quorum detection. When a nest scout discovers a good site, it returns to the colony and recruits a nest-mate. The two engage in an activity called tandem running. The new recruit runs the route to the new site alongside the scout. In so doing, the recruit memorizes the directions.
The recruitment process builds on itself as recruits become recruiters. The species correlates the speed of recruitment to the quality of the site, which amplifies participation. Once quorum threshold is reached, ants begin to carry each other to the new site, accelerating the site’s adoption even faster.
🩸 White Blood Cell - Lymphocytes
Immune systems are masters of adaptive decentralized control. Lymphocytes are the bounty hunters of this system. These crusaders are able to search dynamic and complex landscapes for disturbances effectively and at-scale. Lymphocytes do it all without informing each other of the task or when it must be executed. To pull this off, they employ a powerful system called RADAR - Robust Adaptive Decentralized search Automated Response. It is a distributed search-and-response mechanism used in scenarios of high uncertainty.
A prime example of RADAR is the immune system’s response to lethal pathogens. The lymphatic system as a network can recognize 1 million different antigens. By working with signalers called cytokines, lymphocytes can identify the chemical information of any cell in the body. For instance, when a body contracts the flu, cytokine storms warn of impending danger.
Lymphocytes can then bind to a unique set of proteins called ‘cognate’ antigens on the surface of viruses, bacteria or infected host cells to assess the damage and begin the relay race back to repair.
More impressively, the immune system can handle moving targets. HIV can mutate to avoid immune system recognition. An HIV moves so rapidly that an entirely new genetic strain evolves in the course of a single infection. While immune systems are compromised by the energy expenditure, lymphocytes are still able to identify the target.
Lymphatic Systems are also ‘mass-invariant’. This means that the speed of response is usually the same no matter the size of the host. A crocodile has as fast a lymphatic system response as the Egyptian Plover bird. Aka WAY autonomous.
Ultimately, lymphocytes gather their network power from a decentralized information exchange. The network gains flexibility from its diverse linguistic space. Rather than passing one unit of information, lymphocytes have a vocabulary of instructions for each other that allow for myriad response types.
🧠 Human Neurons
No single neuron is responsible for the brain’s decision-making. In our vision system, as an example, a specialized subset of neurons integrate signals from other neurons, allowing the brain to trigger yet more neurons which in turn initiates a motor response. In so doing, neurons accumulate information, only firing when the stimulus hits a threshold necessary to implement a decision.
Our best guess right now is that the brain consists of a network of interconnected multi-sensory areas, each acting as a survey mechanism for their respective army of neurons. This process effectively scales local information to global, contributing to the fully functioning brain.
🧜 Colonial Hydroid Species
This class of Hydrozoa is distantly related to both jellyfish and coral. The colonial species consist of multiple polyps connected by a tubelike structure called a hydrocauli. Like sponges, coral and fungi, colonial Hydrozoa are a modular species. Through a process called cyclic morphogenesis, the organism can produce multiple repeats of its body parts to create a network. This multiplication process occurs without the help of a coordinating organ, resulting in genuine decentralization. This is not an underdevelopment of a central control system as much as it is the complete elimination of coordination between modules. In the Hydrozoa reproduction cycle, the original maternal entity is not accreted by the daughter entity. Instead, it expands into a whole new structure.
This unique arrangement bestows a special type of invincibility upon Hydrozoa. While the colony is capable of regeneration, it can continue to function without doing so. This is not a function of complexity, but of simplicity. Without a central command structure, no aspect of the entity is vital for its continued survival.
OK this one’s been done by far great mushroom minds than me. If you want to go deep, and I recommend you do, stop reading this intensely nerdy listicle and watch this film now:
The mushroom shape we so immediately recognize are merely the reproductive organism of a much more gargantuan organism called fungi. Fungi organize themselves in an underground root structure made of tiny threads called mycelium. This fungal network is the largest organism on Earth. Mycelium has existed here for 1.3 billion years; that’s 5 great extinction events.
The fungal network’s root system is a distributed intelligence network capable of sending information bi-directionally and even across species lines. That information allows the fungal networks to constantly evolve based on feedback from the environment. The network contains millions of endpoints each searching for food, defending their territory or inventing new molecules to defeat competition. The network is also able to form decentralized consensus on how to use resources, when to reproduce and when to defend itself.
Despite its extraordinary survival skills, or perhaps because of them, mushrooms share the power of the network with other forest species.
In 1983, two studies proved that poplars and sugar maple trees warn each other about predatory insect colonies. As soon as one tree was attacked, it would let out a defense chemical, signaling to other trees to begin doing so as well. A decade later, researchers discovered that trees in fact transfer carbon, nitrogen carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients, back and forth via mycelia.
🌚 Dark Matter
Dark matter constitutes 95% of the observable Universe. In the name of visualization, I try to see it as one single mass of vapor, that’s everywhere. What dark matter truly consists of is very much up for debate. We are certain about some aspects of its behavior: While positive mass is familiar to all of us, the concept of negative mass is pretty exotic. While a positive mass gravitationally attracts all surrounding masses, a negative mass will gravitationally repel all surrounding masses. If a force is exerted on a positive mass, the mass will move in the direction of the applied force. However, if a force is exerted on a negative mass, the mass will move towards the applied force. Nevertheless, a negative mass at the surface of the Earth would fall downwards in a similar manner to a positive mass. All this to say, dark matter is a very weird time.
One of the more curious behaviors of negative mass is its relationship with positive mass. When a positive and negative mass possess equal magnitude, the particles undergo a process of ”runaway motion.” The net mass of the particle pair zeroes out and the pair accelerate together at the speed of light.
This behavior en masse is viewed as a massively decentralized dynamic system governing our entire reality. We’re totally in the dark on what that decentralized behavior is actually accomplishing.
At some point, we must surrender our conqueror complex and concede that nature has us beat. If the sheer vastness of dark matter isn’t daunting enough for you, try this notion: The complexity of any of these individual life forces here on Earth are child’s play in the face of how all inter-relationships ladder up to a larger decentralized whole.
Asking nature isn’t an answer, it’s the answer.
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