Book Report: Emergence

Emergence“As our everyday life becomes increasingly populated by artificial emergence, we will find ourselves relying more and more on the logic of these systems – both in corporate America, where ‘bottom-up intelligence’ has started to replace ‘quality management’ as the mantra of the day, and in the radical, antiglobalization protest movements, who explicitly model their pacemakerless, distributed organizations after ant colonies and slime molds.” (Emergence – p65)

Title: Emergence – The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software

Author: Steven Johnson

Publisher: Scribner

Publication Date: 2001

Origin: After reading How We Got To Now, I bought Steven Johnson’s entire catalogue.

Summary: In Emergence, Steven Johnson tackles, well, emergence. Basically, emergence refers to higher-level structure, order, and behaviour that results from individual, isolated, agents following simple rules. For instance, cities take on a distinct character, with unique neighbourhoods and enough order within the surface-level chaos to keep functioning, growing, and preserving information over time. But few of the city’s inhabitants give a damn about that…instead, the citizens are just living their lives, having local interactions and pursuing local objectives.

Johnson explains a number of examples of emergence – slime molds, ant colonies (contrary to our ideas about the ant queen directing things, “There are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom”), fractals, etc. – and then shows how our understanding of emergence is being applied to software and other intelligent systems.

He applies particular focus to two additional areas: the human brain, and the Internet (recall that the book was first published in 2001). Johnson draws parallels between the ‘rules’ that govern emergent systems (e.g., interconnectedness, feedback loops, independence) and the structure of the brain and Internet.

In general, Johnson explores how our understanding of and reliance upon emergent systems (say, to control traffic lights) will shape our lives in the coming years; however, he also makes clear that one key aspect of an emergent system is that you don’t really know what behaviour is going to emerge, so you have to be comfortable relinquishing control to a certain degree: “It is both the promise and the peril of swam logic that the higher-level behavior is almost impossible to predict in advance. Understanding emergence has always been about giving up control, letting the system govern itself as much as possible, letting it learn from the footprints.

My Take: I like abstraction and parallels, and have always had a fondness for emergent phenomena, so I quite enjoyed Emergence. The book opened my eyes considerably to the idea of a city as being a super-organism defined by the emergent behaviour of its citizens; usually I just look at cities as annoying places to drive, but now I have a new-found appreciation for their beautiful complexity. The webby stuff towards the end bored me a bit, but probably because a) I’ve worked in Internet technologies for 12 years and b) the book was written in 2001 (that said, many of his predictions are prescient).

Interestingly, within a few days of opening Emergence, I coincidentally saw a couple of other examples:

  • In the mathematical documentary series The Code, they examined swarm and emergent behaviour in groups of humans; this segment included a great example in a busy train station
  • On June 1st, The Daily Show’s guest was US General Stanley McChrystal, who was there to promote his book Team of Teams. During the interview, he explained how the US military was well-equipped to take on hierarchical, structured threats, but was having extreme difficulty with threats that have distributed, independent organization and emergent behaviour

Read This Book If: You want to open your mind to some amazing phenomena that seem to defy all expectation (i.e., crazy complex higher-order behaviour emerging with no coordination), and want to gain a foundation in the concepts of emergence.

Notes and Quotes:

  • p16, from a researcher into emergent biology: “It amazes me how difficult it is for people to think in terms of collective phenomenon.” Throughout the book, we see examples of phenomena to which people assume the existence of some central authority, and for which they harbour extreme skepticism that such complex behaviour can truly be emergent.
  • p31: “Popular culture trades in Stalinist ant stereotypes – witness the authoritarian colony regime in the animated film Antz – but in fact, colonies are the exact opposite of command economies. While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom.”

“Colonies are the exact opposite of command economies. While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom.”

  • Two points here: first, I’ve been seeing Jane Jacobs’ name pop up a bunch lately; second, it’s amazing how many situations can be addressed intelligently not by simply, or by knee-jerk, eliminating the bad, but instead by studying the good. p50: “In her valiant and ultimately triumphant bid to block the razing of the West Village, Jacobs argued that the way to improve city streets and restore the dynamic civility of urban life was not to bulldoze the problem zones, but rather to look at city streets that did work and learn from them.”
  • p64: “Histories of intellectual development – the origin and spread of new ideas – usually come in two types of packages: either the ‘great man’ theory, where a single genius has a eureka moment in the lab or the library and the world is immediately transformed; or the ‘paradigm shift’ theory, where the occupants of the halls of science awake to find an entirely new floor has been built on top of them, and within a few years, everyone is working out of the new offices. Both theories are inadequate: the great-man story ignores the distributed, communal effort that goes into any important intellectual advance, and the paradigm-shift model has a hard time explaining how the new floor actually gets built. I suspect Mitch Resnick‘s slime mold simulation may be a better metaphor for the way idea revolutions come about: think of those slime mold cells as investigators in the field; think of those trails as a kind of institutional memory. With only a few minds exploring a given problem, the cells remain disconnected, meandering across the screen as isolated units, each pursuing its own desultory course. With pheromone trails that evaporate quickly, the cells leave no trace of their progress – like an essay published in a journal that sits unread on a library shelf for years. But plug more minds into the system and give their work a longer, more durable trail – by publishing their ideas in best-selling books, or founding research centers to explore those ideas – and before long the system arrives at a phase transition: isolated hunches and private obsessions coalesce into a new way of looking at the world, shared by thousands of individuals.”
  • p65-66: “As our everyday life becomes increasingly populated by artificial emergence, we will find ourselves relying more and more on the logic of these systems – both in corporate America, where ‘bottom-up intelligence’ has started to replace ‘quality management’ as the mantra of the day, and in the radical, antiglobalization protest movements, who explicitly model their pacemakerless, distributed organizations after ant colonies and slime molds.”

“As our everyday life becomes increasingly populated by artificial emergence, we will find ourselves relying more and more on the logic of these systems.”

  • p82: “The persistence of the whole over time – the global behavior that outlasts any of its component parts – is one of the defining characteristics of complex systems. Generations of ants come and go, and yet the colony itself matures, grows more stable, more organized. The mind naturally boggles at this mix of permanence and instability.”

“The persistence of the whole over time – the global behavior that outlasts any of its component parts – is one of the defining characteristics of complex systems.”

  • p90, while discussing how groups of like or related businesses spring into a clustered existence in cities: “Local rules lead to global structure – but a structure that you wouldn’t necessarily predict from the rules.”

“Local rules lead to global structure.”

  • p96: “The value of the exchange between strangers lies in what it does for the superorganism of the city, not in what it does for the strangers themselves.”
  • p96: “Sidewalks work because they permit local interactions to create global order. For all we know, there may well be something psychologically broadening in gazing out over the slums from your Ford Explorer, but that experience will do nothing for the larger health of the city itself, because the information transmitted between agents is so famished and so fleeting.”
  • p99: “Those of us who walk the sidewalks of today’s cities remain as ignorant of the long-term view, the thousand-year scale of the metropolis, as the ants are of the colony’s life. Perceived at that scale, the success of the urban superorganism might well be the single most momentous global event of the past few centuries: until the modern era less than 3 percent of the world’s population lived in communities of more than five thousand people; today, half the planet lives in urban environments.”
  • p111: “A linear increase in energy can product a nonlinear change in the system that conducts that energy.”

“A linear increase in energy can product a nonlinear change in the system that conducts that energy.”

  • p126, from a passage discussing and predicting the (back in 2001) rise in customized news and site feeds, recommendation engines, etc.: “Other critics fear a narrowing of our aesthetic bandwidth, with agents numbly recommending the sites that everyone else is surfing, all the while dressing their recommendations up in the sheep’s clothing of custom-fit culture.”
  • p128: “The Web may never become self-aware in any way that resembles human self-awareness, but that doesn’t mean the Web isn’t capable of learning. Our networks will grow smarter in the coming years, but smarter in the way that an immune system or a city grows smarter, not the way a child does.”
  • p132, after a section on the (literally) overnight emergence of the Gennifer Flowers and Bill Clinton story: “What we saw in the winter of 1992 was not unlike watching Nixon sweat his way through the famous televised debate of 1960. As countless critics have observed since, we caught a first glimpse in that exchange of how the new medium would change the substance of politics: television would increase our focus on the interpersonal skills of our politicians and diminish our focus on the issues.” I found myself wondering about the impact of the Internet, and it’s no mere coincidence that Barack Obama is the POTUS and he happens to be the most Internet-savvy of all the presidential candidates against whom he faced off. Television made Nixon look like a sweating corpse; the Internet makes Barack Obama look like an approachable, real person.
  • Ha! From p149: “A threaded discussion board turns out to be an ideal ecosystem for that peculiar species known as the crank – the ideologue obsessed with a certain issue or interpretive model, who has no qualms interjecting his or her worldview into any discussion.”
  • p200 discusses an interesting theory that our survival as a social species depended upon our perception of others, and, as we developed our brain’s capacity to maintain awareness of others, we started to have better awareness of ourselves.
  • p211 made a reference to the great sitcom NewsRadio. Remember NewsRadio? Wasn’t it terrific (at first)?
  • p233: “It is both the promise and the peril of swam logic that the higher-level behavior is almost impossible to predict in advance. You never really know what lies on the other end of a phase transition until you press play and find out…you set up a system of various pattern-recognition devices and feedback loops, connecting the virtual organism to a simulated environment. And then you see what happens.”

“It is both the promise and the peril of swam logic that the higher-level behavior is almost impossible to predict in advance.”

  • p234: “Understanding emergence has always been about giving up control, letting the system govern itself as much as possible, letting it learn from the footprints.”
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Posted in Books, Everything, Math and Science
3 comments on “Book Report: Emergence
  1. […] echoing Emergence, while describing the many scavenging roles in Victorian London: “But such social outrage […]

  2. […] Much Coupling, by Steven Strogatz…echoing the message of Emergence: “In all sorts of complex systems, this is the general trend: Increasing the coupling between […]

  3. […] Take: While Mind Wide Open didn’t keep me nearly as captivated as How We Got to Now and Emergence, I still found it enlightening and enjoyable. I think it really comes down to my own interest in […]

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