Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Steven Johnson, "Emergence".

Postive and negative feedback... pattern recognition... neighbor interaction... self-organizing system... These are all qualities that Steven Johnson associates with the broad concept that is the title of his 2001 book, "Emergence". Johnson is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Discover magazine. At the same time, he strives to incorporate his scientific knowledge into a practice of cultural criticism.

What do ant colonies, neurobiology, computer games, the Web and cities have in common?Johnson maintains that they are all clear examples of bottom-up systems, where the component parts of each follow simple and clear rules, yet together serve to create a broader unconsciously-formed intelligence.

Harvester ants follow trails of pheremones, and organize their collective behavior without the direct command of any individual leader.

The system of neural connections in your brain is formed from many independently functioning circuits, and each individual connection only has meaning relative to the millions of others that make up the whole.

Computer game designers are working to grow artificial intelligences that start with simple rules and basic code, but in their relationship achieve atonishing and unpredictable results.

The Web consists of countless nodes that send signals in a seemingly haphazard fashion, only to lead you and fellow travelers to new understandings and orders that cluster the like-minded.

And finally, cities themselves gather and transmit information through the many interactions of their inhabitants. In this manner, the seeming chaos of urban life transitions into an organically built system of neighborhoods and business districts that ultimately makes more sense than the guidance of urban planners.

Johnson weaves the many threads of these examples, slowly building impressions of the "emergence" phenomena. He characterizes this process as the engine of evolution, and proclaims the study of it to be a revolutionary intellectual development. He predicts that the growing understanding of emergence is going to spark a paradigm shift in politics, the entertainment industry, technology, and the business world. He gives examples of how theorists and inventors have already begun to adjust their thinking. Despite the technical nature of much of this material, many of Johnson's explorations are entertaining and thought-provoking for the layman.

Unfortunately for the reader, Johnson never really synthesizes the mechanics behind emergence. Even after working my way through his somewhat disjointed prose, I can't say I have a clear picture of how these parts make up the whole. And that's a serious failing considering his book is based upon the premise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Or maybe that's his point... but I don't know (and I guess can't consciously know) what "it all means". Is he presenting a prescription or merely a description?


Blogger John Morris said...

Carefull, David an interest in organic, self organising systems could led you to agree with me more often.

It's a tragic reality of like that we often learn the most from breaking things that work and making mistakes. Perhaps the only silver lining from the perhaps 100 million people who died in the various collectivist experiments of the 20th century is that by showing the failures of centrally planning, it gave us a greater respect for the complexities of self organising systems.
( I include WWII, in that calculation, so think it's underestimated. )
Some interesting books that relate.

The Road To Serfdom, By F.A. Hayek

Human Action by Ludwig Von Mises ( that's a huge dense book, but great )

Our Enemy, The State By Albert Jay Nock

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

5:53 PM  

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