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[Op-Ed] ‘Ant Mode’

Posted December. 11, 2008 03:05,   


“They all seem part of one organism. If one is touched, all of them seem to feel it.” This is part of a conversation among rescue workers who watch people stuck in the ground of the Forest of Fontainebleau for months but who were saved with the help of ants in the 1991 sci-fi novel “Empire of the Ants” by Bernard Werber, a French author popular in Korea. The only way to survive in the ground without sunlight and food was living like ants. The survivors follow ant society, where individual survival is guaranteed through survival of the whole.

Is this just science fiction? “Discovery of the Empire of Ants,” a rare non-fiction bestseller by professor Choi Jae-cheon of Ewha Womans University, shows that ant society looks surprisingly similar to that of humans. The efficiency of division and distribution in ant society is amazing to see. Ants can explode themselves to save their society, while others opt to conspire to overthrow the queen ant. Certain ants even receive rewards in exchange for protecting plants. Though both ants and humans are the two major rulers of earth, humans need to learn more from the insect, which has lived for more than 100 million years.

In the face of the economic downturn, the American lifestyle is growing similar to that of ants. Americans are going into “ant mode,” meaning more work and less play. The U.S. market research company Harris Interactive said Americans worked one hour more per week and spent four hours less for leisure this year than last year. In the three hours in which they neither worked nor played, they searched for information through wireless services using computers or cell phones. Data searching might be part of “ant mode” in that it costs no money unlike other leisure activities.

The United States is not alone in adopting “ant mode.” A Korean online job search site found 69 percent of 1,231 respondents more stressed at the end of this year than last year. The biggest source of anxiety was corporate restructuring. The worse the economic condition is, the more people go into crisis mode. Employees voluntarily work overtime to impress their bosses, and housewives refrain from going outside and shelling out money. Hard work is not the only virtue humans can learn from ants, however. The things Korea really needs to overcome this crisis are the efficient cooperation and division of ant society.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)