Adaptation Wiki


Welcome to the Adaptation Wiki! I've chosen this medium over more conventional ones, such as writing a paper or producing a video, for three reasons. First of all, since wikis are based on hypertext, they are also inherently networks of pages, which of course matches the theme of the conference. Secondly, papers and videos are linear media, which are biased towards creating closure on an issue. On the contrary, wikis are never finished, and I hope for this one to be a conversation starter. Finally, since I started working with wikis five years ago, I've been pleasantly surprised by how easy it can be to link the thoughts of different people in a way that does not exclude dissent.

I won't discuss my previous study experiences with networks extensively, but since we haven't really introduced ourselves yet, I'll mention some of them briefly. In 2007 I was studying Industrial Design Engineering in Delft, where I had the opportunity to explore whether a wiki could be used to provide designers with highly relevant information and knowledge. This subject interested me much more than working on consumer products, and I thus decided to pursue my studies elsewhere. At this time it also became clear to me that the future seemed very uncertain, and hence I enrolled for Future Planet Studies in Amsterdam, an interdisciplinary approach for gaining insight into the 'complex challenges' that humanity finds itself confronted with.

For the final project there, I designed a system which could connect stakeholders that deal with food and/or organic waste to increase food security and recycle nutrients. This was only possible by viewing a food system as a social network. My interest is, however, not limited to networking people. For my thesis in Information Studies, I'm currently working on a Linked Data (Bizer, Heath, & Berners-Lee, 2009) model for book lists that will allow social book cataloging applications (e.g. Goodreads) exchange the creations of their users with each other and with library systems. I will gladly expand on these topics if anyone finds them relevant.


In the Adaptation working group, we concern ourselves with how decentralized networks respond to change. If your interest in this topic continues after this conference - and hopefully will be fueled by it - I imagine that you will, in one way or another, come into contact with the FuturICT EU research project (see FuturICT, 2012). It is a well funded and ambitious project, that has recently started to set up an international 'laboratory' that will facilitate the collection of hitherto unimagined amounts of empirical data from complex networks. Video 1 gives a basic introduction of the aims of the FuturICT project.

Video 1: A basic introduction of the FuturICT project.

FuturICT aims to contribute to "strengthening our societies' adaptiveness, resilience, and sustainability". This phrasing makes clear that FuturICT's approach is not limited to studying the structure of networks; the properties of networks which are either timeless or based on a 'snapshot' that is taken during a limited time span (see Newman, 2010). A structural property that is related to resilience is the robustness of a network (ibid., pp. 197). The properties of adaptiveness, resilience, and sustainability, in contrast, depend on processes which must be studied over time, and on which scientific progress has been slow (ibid., pp. 591). A conceptual terminology that is highly relevant has been introduced under the name Resilience Thinking (Walker & Salt, 2006), but it is an open challenge to apply these concepts in a formal or mathematical way. Especially the concepts of regimes, thresholds, and adaptive cycles seem relevant in studying adaptation. These terms now also seem to appear (in a simplified form) in conversations about innovation networks.

Understanding Ants and People

The study of social systems as networks is relatively recent. Many of the concepts and techniques that are used to do this, have been previously developed to study biological and physical systems. In order to study adaptation for networks in general, the interaction networks within and between ant colonies can serve as a prototypical example that may shed light on dynamic properties of networks in general (Gordon, 2010). We can at least examine whether the generalizations that are made by Gordon hold in other domains. I found the following statements from the first chapters most valuable:

  1. "An ant's response to a chemical cue was not fixed, but depended on what the ant was doing." (Gordon, 2010, pp. 7)
  2. "There are always dense webs of contingency in systems of interacting parts." (ibid., pp. 10)
  3. "Living systems are unique [because] they cause their own development and activity." (ibid., pp. 10-11)
  4. "All complex biological systems have in common that without central control, local interactions among the parts produce coordinated behavior of the whole." (ibid., pp. 19).
  5. "[E]mergent phenomena do not occur by magic." We call them emergent because we do not sufficiently understand through which processes these phenomena come about. (ibid., pp. 20)
  6. "There are many ways to describe any system; many different models could describe the same behavior." (ibid., pp. 22)
  7. "Ants react to two kinds of external information: changes in the outside world and interactions with each other." (ibid., pp. 37)
  8. "The pattern of interaction itself, rather than any signal transferred, acts as the message." (ibid., pp. 47-48)

Gordon's remark about 'the message' has a special relevance to me, as someone involved in information studies. She expresses an understanding of the limits of the mathematical model of communication that has been so successful in engineering disciplines. This model, that was proposed by the engineer Claude Shannon (reproduced in Figure 1), suffers from the use of 'the conduit metaphor' of communication (Bryant, 2008). The conduit metaphor is misleading and misconceived for its focus on "signal", but is unfortunately also widespread and influential (ibid., pp. 63).

Claude Shannon's model of communication. Adapted from Bryant (2008, pp. 62).

Figure 1: Claude Shannon's model of communication. Adapted from Bryant (2008, pp. 62).

As seems conventional in network science, Gordon takes the stance that it is more important to focus on the pattern of interactions than on what might be communicated between two agents. I wouldn't say that this is incorrect, but it still omits a very important aspect of communication: media. Real-world networks (as opposed to theoretical examples) require a medium for the vertices between the nodes to exist in. My, perhaps provocative, way of thinking abstractly about this, is that adaptation must take place through this medium.

The stance that comes forth from this way of thinking, is that if we fail to acknowledge the potential role of media theory in networks, we might simplify the mathematical work, but will simultaneously close ourselves off from opportunities to study adaptation in networks qualitatively. The specific type of media theory that seems relevant to networks is that of Media Ecology (Strate, 2004). This scholarly field originates with a remark by Marshall McLuhan, that was originally published in 1964: "The Medium Is the Message" (McLuhan, 2003). Media should, in this sense, be regarded as a broader concept than just 'communications media'. In his recent dissertation, Douglas Rushkoff has even treated corporations and currencies as media (Rushkoff, 2012), with interesting results.

Analogous to how human audiences are usually focused on the content that reaches them, instead of reflecting on the characteristics of the medium through which it reaches them, slight nuances in interactions between ants may be more interesting to them than to someone who's interested in ant colony behavior. But this does not mean that we, as researchers, should be indifferent towards the media through which interactions take place. Each quick brush of two pairs of antennae expresses nuances that we may overlook, but as an interaction, touch is certainly distinct from, for example, chemical cues.

Adaptation Is Mediated

We may just as well talk about 'types of interactions' instead of media; what matters is that each medium introduces its own biases into the interactions that take place through it. Chemical cues, for instance, are biased towards asynchronous interactions. One ant puts down a pheromone trail at one time, and only at a later time do other ants respond to these molecules. This bias is certainly not unique to ants, and in the human world is found in most writings and for example streaming video. These conceptual analogs of media between different domains might be useful to create new hypotheses with which to look at empirical data about interactions. The current approach to network science leans heavily towards mathematical abstractions (e.g. of adaptation), and I think that Media Ecology can form a bridge towards more qualitative abstract work on networks.

One researcher in particular has produced groundbreaking results on interaction networks in humans. MIT Professor Alex Pentland, who also advises the FuturICT Consortium, studies people in a way that is very similar to how Deborah Gordon studies ants. He has had to make the same decisions as Gordon in deciding what to measure: "In our experiments mapping corporation information flows we typically find that the pattern of information transfer - face-to-face, email, etc., independent of the content of the information - accounts for almost half of the performance variation within a corporation. [...] In short, we now have the capacity to collect and analyze data about people with a breadth and depth that was previously inconceivable." (Pentland, 2011).

I expect that most people would be severely disturbed if they would understand this research, and its use in FuturICT, to its full extent. At the least it is a very novel approach to understanding the collective behavior of communities and societies by gathering enormous amounts of data about individuals. We should not forget that any understanding of networks that we gain through new technologies, such as used in FuturICT, is mediated in some way, and that this introduces biases into our understanding that we will only uncover much later (see Verbeek, 2011). Actually, a recent turn in the philosophy of technology suggests that all technologies are media, and that they are morally 'charged'.

The intention that FuturICT will not only be used for research, but also to manage, is an even greater cause for concern. Even with the best of intentions in mind during the development and use of FuturICT's technology, there will be unintended consequences which may range from highly undesirable to surprisingly pleasant. I would like to leave you with the thoughts of Sebastian Deterding on this topic (see Video 2), instead of concluding this page in any way (there is no point in concluding a conversation that hasn't started yet).

Video 2: What your designs say about you. Presentation given at the TEDxHogeschoolUtrecht conference.


Bizer, C., Heath, T., & Berners-Lee, T. (2009). Linked Data - The Story So Far. International Journal on Semantic Web and Information Systems. Retrieved from

Bryant, A. (2008). Information and the CIO. In A. Huizing & E. J. de Vries (Eds.), Information Management: Setting the Scene (2nd ed., pp. 57-69). Howard House, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

FuturICT (2012). FutureICT Flagship Report May 4. Retrieved from:

Gordon, D. (2010). Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

McLuhan, M. (2003). The Medium Is the Message. In N. Wardrip-Fruin & N. Montford (Eds.), The New Media Reader (pp. 203 – 209). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Newman, M. E. J. (2010). Networks: An Introduction. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Pentland, A. (2011). Society’s Nervous System: Building Effective Government, Energy, and Public Health Systems. Pervasive and Mobile Computing, 10. Retrieved from

Rushkoff, D. M. (2012). Monopoly Moneys: The media environment of corporatism and the player’s way out. Utrecht University.

Strate, L. (2004). A Media Ecology Review. Communication Research Trends, 23(2), 3-48. Retrieved from

Verbeek, P.-P. (2011). De Grens van de Mens. Rotterdam: Lemniscaat.

Walker, B., & Salt, D. (2006). Resilience Thinking. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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