Recently I’ve read the book Emergence by Steven Johnson (who also writes a weblog).
In it he explains what emergence is, how we can recognise it, and how it might alter the way we work and live, now that we have entered a new phase in our existence: not only are we observing emergence as a phenomena, we are starting to use it. (p.21)
Johnson uses several examples throughout his book, the neurons in our head, the way ant colonies go about their work, and how cities develop. These are complex systems that develop interesting behavioural patterns.
In the introduction Johnson cites Warren Weaver in explaining where the complexity realm can be located. Science in the past dealt predominantly with systems of a small number of variables. Based on that work, al in terms of direct causality, man made significant progress. With the advent of statistics it became possible to put a finger on systems with very large numbers of unrelated variables, such as the behaviour of molecules in gas or hereditary patterns, and healthinsurances (p. 46).
But, says Weaver, this leaves a large field untouched. Between the small scale systems and the large “disorganized complexity” of statistically approachable situations there lies the space of “organised complexity” (p. 47):
much more than the mere number of variables is the fact that all these variables are interrelated: These problems, as contrasted with the disorganised situations with which statistics can cope, show the essential feature of organisation. We will therefore refer to this group of problems as those of organised complexity.
When we relate this to the realms Dave Snowden distinguishes, than complexity is of the organised kind, whereas chaos is the disorganised variety of complexity. Both the knowable and known realms collapse into one, in Weavers description.
What Johnson tries to tell us is that emergence can account, and in fact does account, for a lot of situations that if we encounter them make us think someone or something is in control and deliberately chose a course of action. When we see patterns in design we assume a designer. We name the egg-laying ant queen, implicitly saying she’s in control of the entire colony. Where in fact she’s just laying eggs. But how else could ants operate in their organised manner, if not by being controlled by the queen. This thinking is of course shaped by the way we have organised things ourselves for most of the time: hierarchically, command and control based situations. When all you have is a hammer, everything quickly starts looking like a nail.
Then how does this organised character of emergent systems come about, if not through “pacer” elements that provide control. One way is leaving trails of what you do. When someone comes across that trail it might alter his behaviour. If the trails become longer and the number of trails becomes bigger it might alter the behaviour of groups/systems. It’s how slime molds group together into a single entity, it is how neighbourhoods come into existence. Not Pacers, but Tracers. Not Top-down but Bottom-up. And although our minds might be wired to look for pacers, we are steadily learning how to think from the bottom-up. (p. 67)
Blogging is much like leaving longer traces, much the same way slime molds do. It creates traces we previously could not leave, and we are finding contacts because of it, that otherwise would have remained invisible to us.
What can we learn from natural emergence when looking to apply it to creating emergence ourselves? Johnson says:
If you’re building a system designed to learn from the ground level, a system where macro-intelligence and adaptability derive from local knowledge, there are five fundamental factors (p. 77)
- More is different (micromotives vs. macrobehaviour)
- Ignorance is useful (simple basic units form complex systems in large numbers, no neuron itself is sentient)
- Encourage random encounters
- Look for patterns in the signs
- Pay attention to your neighbours
Feedback is an intrinsic feature in emergent systems as well. It is feedback that can tip the system, and create a phase shift to emergence.
Again looking at blogging, what comes to my mind is how it serves several aspects of the list above. More is certainly different, but I especially think of the increased numbers of random encounters I had since I started blogging. Checking the comments, the serverlogs, browsing the blogrolls of others, random finds through Google, they all put me in touch with literally hundreds of others, all by accident, all unplanned.
Some of these encounters have gone on and transformed into closer contacts. They became my neighbours in the blogosphere, and in some senses, except for geographic proximity, are more like neighbours to me than the family next door. As to paying attention to my neighbours in connection to feedback, my earlier postings and thoughts about echo chambers come to mind. I stated that isolated echo-chambers are a certain way to remain ignorant of the world around you, but echo-chambers that are connected to, that still have a large number of random encounters with the outside world are essentially creating feedback effects. Amplifying signals and feeding them back through the channels where they came from. This creates patterns and brings them to the foreground. Blogospheric echo chambers are useful as long as paying attention to your neighbours does not discourage you from having random encounters.
Emergence sheds a different light on my previous observations on information overload as well. Information overload does not exist I said, and emergence might help me formulate a reason why.
If we look from a hierarchical perspective there is a need for having all available information at your disposal. It is what keeps you on top of it all. The usage of the term information overload implies a hierarchical situation. Taking the emergence perspective, information overload dissolves into nothingness: it is not about the individual information items, it’s about the overall shapes and patterns they in combination convey, which you should be alert to. And as I said in my earlier posting, for this you need as much info as you can get, increase the random encounters to a maximum, to be able to look for patterns, and feel the pulse of things. (also see p 103 of Emergence) Just as walking on the sidewalks gives you a feel of the pulse of the city. You don’t have to talk to all people passing by for that. A few will do, while you watch all others passing by. No tourist ever complained that two weeks was too short a visit to talk to all New Yorkers in person, in stead she will tell you how she got to know the city just by walking around, seeing people, and on occasion talking to a juggler in Central Park, chatting with a cab driver, and going to a small restaurant.