How often do you see people walking toward you along a busy street, some device or another clenched in their grip? Their heads craned at an awkward angle, as they stare intently at the screen. Addicted to the devices in their hands and reduced in stature because of it. Occasionally they will look up with a jerk of the head to check they aren’t about to run into something. Sometimes they do run into things.
What does this behaviour have to do with ants? It’s an interesting story.
Ants, as you might know, are an industrious and social species. Working together through a sequence of chemical exchanges to achieve tremendous outcomes for the entire nest. They can shape entire environments to their needs and have needs that spread for dozens of metres.
Down among the plant growth, ants move in trails on the forest floor to avoid predators. Occasionally, however, an ant may behave erratically, turning away from the stream of its companions, ignoring the chemical signals being constantly exchanged around it. It wanders, almost drunkenly, up a highway of stems until it is above the forest floor. Up where it is at risk of being eaten. Seemingly focused on some interior quest. The truth is much darker than that.
As the ant reaches the end of its journey, it stops, and seizes hold of the edge of a leaf with its jaws. Then it stops and waits. It is the wrong place for an ant, but the right place for the growth of something else. After a period of time, its small body twitches, and from the back of its skull or the body erupts a tiny filament thread. A fungi. The fungi extends the thread from the ant and at its fullest extent, the fungi bursts, spreading fungal spores down in an invisible rain onto the jungle floor far below.
Ants below inadvertently consume or absorb the fresh spores. The spores grow and work their way through the ant’s nervous system, controlling their behaviour with subtle chemical signals. They literally intertwine themselves into every part of the ant. As their behaviour is altered, the ant breaks away from its tribe and the cycle continues. The fungi has evolved to take advantage of the ant’s nervous system, using the ant as a vehicle of sorts to promote its own lifecycle.
We talk about addiction; to alcohol, to video games, to devices. Addictions take us to the very edge of our ability to resist the urges and impulses offered by the addictive behaviour. It takes significant personal commitment, social frameworks and perseverance to break a cycle of addiction. However, the influence the fungi exerts over the ant is in a class of its own.
How many of us would be classed as being addicted to technology? Searching for the next piece of social, emotional or cognitive reward that comes from watching, prodding and hearing the feedback that streams from our devices. It’s easy to talk about technology addiction, but have our devices gone one step further? Do our devices act more like infectious fungal agents that literally rewire our behaviour? Built to get a grip on our psychological reward cycles and rewire us to click their buttons. I’m not sure this is any different to the compulsion an ant feels to obey the fungi’s chemical commands.
Make no mistake. The fungus has no ill intent. No personal psychology. It is a mindless life form that exploits a niche. Our devices are are both different and similar to the mind-controlling fungi. Devices don’t evolve by themselves, but they are designed for a reason. There are knowing design choices that are made to ensure consumers are compelled to use the devices and the experiences coming through the interfaces.
When people talk about a need to “increase engagement”, having all of us unable to live without our devices is the extreme end result of this. We don’t reach a point we are full, we just keep being hungry for more. Our attention is exploited for someone else’s gain. The benefits to those designing the technology include advertising revenue, subscription renewals, or behaviour change to name a few.
Unlike the ant, the device cycle doesn’t end with us expired, our devices clutched in lifeless hands, having passed on the behaviour. Or does it? I’ve seen many parents hand their very young children all sorts of devices, tuning them into games, videos or other form of entertainment, edutainment or material. The child holds the device in their small hands around the device and stares intently, uninterrupted for hours on end, drifting out of contact with the world. You can just imagine the fungal spores raining gently down on the forest floor and causing the cycle to continue again.
Here is the rub. Without the fungus, the ants (and other insects) would overrun the jungle. The fungus is part of a set of checks and balances that keep the ecosystem balanced. They key word here is balance. Our mass zombification is not balancing anything. It is a runaway system, funnelling benefit to a few at the expense of a many. The things we make were meant to facilitate a better life, not become our lives. That’s a confronting thought.
Networks of fungal parasites in manipulated ants. Maridel A. Fredericksen, Yizhe Zhang, Missy L. Hazen, Raquel G. Loreto, Colleen A. Mangold, Danny Z. Chen, David P. Hughes Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Nov 2017, 114 (47) 12590-12595; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1711673114.
Ant Photo by Sian Cooper on Unsplash.