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


Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (2001) by Steven Johnson is a fun and fascinating book that explores self-organizing systems from slime molds to software.  Debunking “The Myth of the Ant Queen,” Johnson tells of the research done in urban studies, neuroscience, and computer games that shows that there is no need for a leader or “pacemaker” to get things going.  Don’t make me explain the science but I do reccomend reading the book.

Here’s an article from The New York Times on the swarming instinct (Nov. 13, 2007) that may be related (via MetaFilter).

Favorite Passages

According to the gospel of Death and Life, individuals only benefit indirectly from their sidewalk rituals: better sidewalks make better cities, which in turn improve the lives of the city dwellers. The value of the exchange between strangers themselves. The sidewalk exist to create the “complex order” of the city, not to make the citizens more well-rounded. Sidewalks work because they permit local interactions to create global order. – p. 96

The neighborhood system of the city functions as a kind of user interface for the same reason that traditional computer interfaces do: there are limits to how much information our brains can handle at any given time. We need visual interfaces on our desktop computers because the sheer quantity of information stored on our hard drives — not to mention on the Net itself — greatly exceeds the carrying capacity of the human mind. Cities are a solution to a comparable problem, both on the level of the collective and the individual. Cities store and transmit useful new ideas to the wider population, ensuring that powerful new technologies don’t disappear once they’ve been invented. But the self-organizing clusters of neighborhoods also serve to make cities more intelligible to the individuals who inhabit them — as we saw in the case of our time-traveling Florentine. The specialization of the city makes it smarter, more useful for its inhabitants. And the extraordinary thing again is that this learning emerges without anyone even being aware of it. Information management — subduing the complexity of a large-scale human settlement — is the latent purpose of a city, because when cities come into being, their inhabitants are driven by other motives, such as safety or trade. No one founds a city with the explicit intent of storing information more efficiently, or making its social organization more palatable for the limited bandwidth of the human mind. That data management only happens later, as a kind of collective afterthought: yet another macrobehavior that can’t be predicted from the micromotives. Cities may function like libraries and interfaces, but they are not built with that explicit aim. – p. 108-109

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 a city grows smarter, not the way a child does. That’s nothing to apologize for — an adaptive information network capable of complex pattern recognition could prove to be one of the most important inventions in all of human history. Who cares if it never actually learns how to think for itself? – p. 128

One last note: the names of E.O. Wilson and Jane Jacobs keep coming up in my readings, so I really ought to find some of their works to read.

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