SPUG: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

Michael R. Wolf MichaelRWolf at att.net
Mon Mar 8 12:58:13 CST 2004

    "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software"
    by Steven Johnson

At the recent SPUG party, I was extolling the insight in this book. It
reminded me of some of the themes in Steogeb Wolfram's "A new kind of

For me, "Emergence" was a huge insight into Open Source (the
self-organizing community, not the technology). A central theme of the
book is that higher level behavior emerges from independant sub-pieces
that think _locally_ *and* act _locally_ -- there is no pacemaker,
ruler, or top-down decision maker. He calls this higher level behavior
emergent behavior because it emerges as system-level observable
behavior even though the individuals in the system do not, in fact
cannot, know about that higher level behavior. To support his swarm
behavior observations, Steven uses slime mold, ant colonies, city
(growth and organization), and some kinds of software (slashdot is
mentioned) to show that despite the apparent high-level behavior,
there is no high-level ruler or high-level rule.

Remember those "aha" moments when you really learned something?
Something that you alredy "knew", but that became more obvious at a
higher level? This book did that for me with regard to the community
behaviour of open source. 

For about 2 years now, I have been looking for the "business case" in
Open Source. I haven't found it, at least not in an MBA-flavored way,
because there is no centralized set of rules that govern open source
business or community, therefore, there is not a central place to add
value (my sweat labor) and extract value (in dollars). Duh! I knew
that. Now I can stop looking for it, as the folks that studied slime
mold stopped looking for the central pacemaker. It doesn't exist at
the swarm- or hive-level. It doesn't exist at the Open Source
community-level. (That centrality, however, *does* exist for the
*technology* -- it's called Larry Wall and the Perl6 team.) [Note 1]

Ants know that. They put work into the system, and get what they need
from the system, but the system has no centralized rules for the
distribution of the wealth or work -- just a bunch of individuals
doing what they see that needs doing. I guess the correlary to the oft
quoted -- "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is "Lack of central
power, creating a lack of absolute power, prevents absolute
corruption". :-) This is absolutely a good thing, though my
frustration at a lack of centrality is a common source of frustration
for me.

I highly recommend reading "Emergence".  Thanks to Amazon.com for a
nice link to more details....


Michael Wolf

Note 1 -- Larry said it nicely in a "State of the Onion" address a few
years back --

    "Perl 5 was my rewrite of Perl. I want Perl 6 to be the
    community's rewrite of Perl and of the community."

      -- Larry Wall, State of the Onion speech, TPC4


A summary from the book jacket:

    Emergence is what happens when an interconnected system of
    relatively simple elements self-organizes to form more
    intelligent, more adaptive higher-level behavior. It's a bottom-up
    model; rather than being engineered by a general or a master
    planner, emergence begins at the ground level. Systems that at
    first glance seem vastly different -- ant colonies, human brains,
    cities, immune systems -- all turn out to follow the rules of
    emergence. In each of these systems, agents residing on one scale
    start producing behavior that lies a scale above them: ants create
    colonies, urbanites create neighborhoods. In the tradition of
    Being Digital and The Tipping Point, Steven Johnson, acclaimed as
    a "cultural critic with a poet's heart" (The Village Voice), takes
    readers on an eye-opening intellectual journey from the discovery
    of emergence to its applications. He introduces us to our everyday
    surroundings, offering suprising examples of feedback,
    self-organization, and adaptive learning. How does a lively
    neighborhood evolve out of a disconnected association of
    shopkeepers, bartenders, and real estate developers? How does a
    media event take on a life of its own? How will new software
    programs create an intelligent World Wide Web?Drawing upon
    evolutionary theory, urban studies, neuroscience, and computer
    games, Emergence is a guidebook to one of the key components of
    twenty-first-century culture. Until recently, Johnson explains,
    the disparate philosophers of emergence have worked to interpret
    the world. But today they are starting to change it. This book is
    the riveting story of that change and what it means for the
    future. If you've searched for information on the Web, played a
    recent video game, or accepted a collect call using voice
    recognition software, you've already encountered the new world of
    artificial emergence. Provocative, engaging, and sophisticated,
    Emergence puts you on the front lines of a sweeping revolution in
    science and thought.

Here's the "Publisher's Weekly" review from the Seattle Public Library
web site.

    To have the highly touted editor of a highly touted Web culture
    organ writing about the innate smartness of interconnectivity
    seems like a hip, winning combination unless that journal becomes
    the latest dot-com casualty. Feed, of which Johnson was cofounder
    and editor-in-chief, recently announced it was shuttering its
    windows, which should make for a less exuberant launch for his
    second bricks-and-mortar title, following 1997's Interface
    Culture. Yet the book's premise and execution make it compelling,
    even without the backstory. In a paradigmatic example here, ants,
    without leaders or explicit laws, organize themselves into highly
    complex colonies that adapt to the environment as a single entity,
    altering size and behavior to suit conditions exhibiting a weird
    collective intelligence, or what has come to be called emergence.
    In the first two parts of the book, Johnson ranges over historical
    examples of such smart interconnectivity, from the silk trade in
    medieval Florence to the birth of the software industry and to
    computer programs that produce their own software offspring, or
    passively map the Web by "watching" a user pool. Johnson's tone is
    light and friendly, and he has a journalistic gift for wrapping up
    complex ideas with a deft line: "you don't want one of the neurons
    in your brain to suddenly become sentient." In the third section,
    which bears whiffs of '90s exuberance, Johnson weighs the impact
    of Web sites like Napster, eBay and Slashdot, predicting the
    creation of a brave, new media world in which self-organizing
    clusters of shared interests structure the entertainment industry.
    The wide scope of the book may leave some readers wanting greater
    detail, but it does an excellent job of putting the Web into
    historical and biological context, with no dot.com diminishment.
    (Sept. 19) Forecast: All press is good press, so the failure of
    Feed at least makes a compelling hook for reviews, which should be
    extensive. A memoir of the author's Feed years can't be far
    behind, but in the meantime this should sell solidly, with a
    possible breakout if Johnson's media friends get behind it fully.

    Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Michael R. Wolf
    All mammals learn by playing!
        MichaelRWolf at att.net

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