“The New Parable of the Bees” is an essay in the launch issue of the journal Translated Works. In my view, we might say instead that the entire launch issue of Translated Works (译品) is a kind of new parable of the bees — an excellent exercise, in other words, in the practice of honeybee democracy. [NOTE: “Translated Works” is a direct but poor translation of the publication title 译品, which suggests something more tasteful and refined. “Honeybee Democracy” is the title of a 2010 book by Thomas Seeley, reviewed in the launch edition of the journal.]
So what is honeybee democracy? Bees have a highly developed collective intelligence, and this highly developed collective intelligence arises principally from their unique method of decision making. As the article explains, the secret of bees is that they are mutually dependent in the process of agenda setting, but maintain independence during the evaluation and judgement stage. If they were not mutually dependent during the agenda setting process, they could only work for themselves, searching out prospective sites in a random and dispersed manner, and they might find it impossible to reach consensus. For the colony this would lead to disastrous results, and they would be seized with panic. On the other hand, if they did not have independence in the judgement stage, they might be unduly influenced by a cascading effect arising from momentary trends or information, reaching a consensus through a parroting process, and ultimately deciding to build their hives in the most inauspicious places. In order to come to correct decisions as they weigh and balance their options, bees have evolved an excellent mechanism combining consensus building and independence of judgement.
This sort of honeybee democracy is of course already in use — moreover, is already widely in use — in human society. The most classic example can be seen in the open-source age brought about by the advent of open-source software. The open-source method is used not only in the development of software, but translation, subtitling and many other creative endeavors are increasingly utilizing the open-source method. Consensus, openness, sharing and coordination are the basic characteristics of the open-source method — and is this not similar to the consensus and independent judgement we find in honeybee democracy?
This is why I recommend Translated Works. In my view, the translators of the various translated works [in the journal] are like worker bees seeking spiritual sustenance for humanity. I read every word of this launch issue with pleasure. Its fresh subject matter and fresh perspectives, its vibrant new ideas and fluid translations, made me clap my hands. But what most moved me was their honey democracy-like open-source style of working. Not for personal gain, but for public benefit. Not for profit, but for love, in the pursuit of spiritual beauty and enjoyment, they came together — attempting a small little utopia of free collaboration, a union of free individuals.
Against the made backdrop of the whirlwind of profit-seeking [in our society], what elegance, how romantic and poetic.
We can do without neither the market economy nor civil society in China today. But we often emphasize the former while we downplay the latter. Without the coordination of the latter, however, the former is a structure built on shaky sand. If we can say that our market economy has long been well established, we must admit that our building of a civil society falls woefully behind, and now constitutes one of the greatest tasks facing China. How do we build civil society? And how do we foster civic culture and the civic spirit? I believe that the honey democracy-like open-source model, one of free association based on deep love and working for the public good, is the road we must take.
This is the most enlightening aspect of Translated Works. If this sort of model [of collaboration and coordination] could take flower everywhere, I truly believe that would be the day civil society in China is established.
(This essay was written on the occasion of the launch of the online journal Translated Works and was published in the May 25 edition of Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post. )
[Access the launch issue of Translated Works here.]