Parable of the Tunneling Ants

Once upon a time in a grassy meadow there lived a colony of ants. As with any large colony of ants there is a fairly rigid structure to the bureaucracy. Ant bureaucracy starts with the Queen at the top, below her are the vice presidents, beneath them are the directors, then there are the managers, and finally at the very bottom of the hierarchy are the worker ants.

This particular colony of ants had a small inefficiency in their tunnels. Their tunnels had a few extra bends in them so they weren’t quite as direct as they could have been. One day an ambitious manager ant named George seeing this as an opportunity for improvement told his director that he if he were given a few worker ants he would replace the entire existing tunnel system with a much more direct and efficient tunnel system. Not only would the new tunnels be more efficient, but there would be fewer cave-ins and all the floors would be turned into moving walkways so ants could get around the colony 3 times faster than they did with the current tunnels. George assured his director that this was all possible in less than one year with only a small number of worker ants. With this assurance the director decided to put into motion this new tunneling program.

George, knowing that the existing tunnel worker ants in his colony were too close minded to bring his grand plan to fruition went to a neighbor colony that was going through some hard times. He had difficulty finding the worker ants he wanted due to all the dead ends in this colony’s tunnel system, but eventually he gathered up enough tunnel workers and the merry little party headed back to our story’s colony. Once there they started work on designing a completely new procedure for creating tunnels. After about a year of designing procedure the director asked George how the project was going, and George said it was taking a little longer than planned but everything was going great. He said that they were currently working on the first tunnel and it was going to be better in every way. A few months later this first tunnel was completed. During the design the worker ants realized that the moving walk ways would be impossible to implement, but that they could get a small speed increase in this test tunnel if they made it go only down hill. There were numerous problems with this first tunnel. It didn’t have any lighting, the walls were rough, and the floor had lots of pot holes that caused the ants testing this tunnel to often sprain an ankle. During testing the workers found that if they increased the number of pot holes it was more likely that the ants would trip over them and roll down the steep tunnel at a fast speed. After adding more pot holes they eventually got a 50% increase in speed by having the ants fall down this steep tunnel. With these results in hand George promised his director that his tunnels were already 50% faster than the existing tunnels. Also these tunnels would eventually be much safer than the old tunnel system. To finish the new tunnel project George said that he was going to need another year and a lot more worker ants. This seemed like a good idea to the director since in the long run these faster tunnels and improved safety would far outweigh this initial cost of developing the tunnels. The upper management at the colony heard how well George’s project was going and promoted him to a director position.

George then went back to the neighboring colony to get some more worker ants, but to his dismay found that the colony had died off during the last year. Because of this George was forced to ask the tunneling worker ants at his colony for help. Since he was now a director now nobody in the existing tunneling program could stop him from taking half the ants working on the old tunnels. The ants that remained on the old tunneling project just shook their heads and tried to explain to management that it would be much easier to improve the existing tunnel system than it would be to build an entirely new tunneling system. Nobody in management would listen to them because they were only lowly worker ants and because this new tunneling system was going to be so great when it was done. The number of worker ants working on this new tunneling program was now much greater than the number of ants working the old tunneling system, which was still being used by the colony. As time progressed the ants working on the new tunnels realized that that they couldn’t have all their tunnels going down and to improve safety they needed to eliminate the pot holes in the floor. They also realized making straight tunnels was hard work and often their new tunnels took less direct paths than the old tunnel system. Also the rate of collapse on this new tunneling system was much higher since it was an untested technology. After the year was done the new tunnel project tests still showed it would be slower and less safe than the old tunneling system, but George realized that he needed to get the system in place so he stopped the research on the new tunnels and the worker ants started digging all the new tunnels. George then went and told everyone that his tunneling system research was done and they would have it implemented in one more year. At this the upper management ants started getting angry with George because it was taking so much longer than originally planned. George countered that by saying that his new tunnel system would be a little safer than the current system and it would be much easier to make new tunnels. Besides it was too late to abandon the new project now. When asked why he forgot to mention the tunnels would be much faster to use, George claimed to have never promised that the new tunnels would be faster. He explained that he had said they might be faster, but after a bunch of research it was found that they would be the same speed. George then reminded them the most important things were safety and ease of adding new tunnels.

All this time the old tunnels were becoming less and less safe since there weren’t enough worker ants working on the old tunnel system. The colony was also starting to experience some overcrowding since no new usable tunnels were getting made.

George then tried to open some of the new tunnels to ease the crowding problems, but so many ants were getting injured in these new unsafe tunnels that they had to be closed off again. Towards the end of that third year most of the new tunneling system was completed, but they still couldn’t open them up to be used because of safety concerns. The new tunnel system was also much slower to navigate than the old system because of the bumpy floors and the tunnel’s curvy nature. George went to explain to upper management that he would need yet another year to finish the new tunnel system, but promised that it would be a much better tunnel system. When asked how it would be better he said that making new tunnels would be easier and maintaining the tunnels once they were done would require less work. As proof he pointed out how the current tunnel project wasn’t building enough new tunnels and that the existing tunnel were getting less safe over the years.

At this point the upper management ants agreed that this new tunnel system needed to be completed even though it probably wouldn’t be any better than the old tunnel system. They couldn’t cancel the new tunnel system because that would make them look like idiots. The new tunnel project was eventually opened after another year, and a few years after that its safety and speed matched what the old tunnel system.