Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Emergence by Steven Johnson is a wonderful, frustrating book.  

It starts off talking about slime molds, which are sort of the mascot of the self-organizing systems world.  These are tiny single celled creatures that, when threatened, coalesce into a multicellular organism.  For years scientists searched for the ‘pacemaker’ cells that started the process.  It turns out there are no pacemakers.  Slime molds have a completely decentralized method of coalescing.  

I’ve referenced Steven Johnson before--way back in a post on Clustering and Coping (8/13/08).  Even then I mentioned he had a book called Emergence.  I just hadn’t read it until recently.  I picked it up in the bookstore that I’m now working in when I visited it in November.  I’ve now read it twice.

One of the things it reminds me of is Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s book, The Starfish and the Spider, which I’ve talked about in two early posts: Catalysts and Network Weavers (8/31/08) and Decentralization (12/9/08).  The big difference is that Brafman and Beckstrom’s book focuses on the phenomenon of decentralization, where Johnson focuses on emergence which is a decentralized process.  In some ways this is the most important process in self-organization.  And, in many ways, it’s unpredictable.

What’s wonderful about Emergence is how clearly Johnson spells out what’s involved in the process.  What’s frustrating is that he seems seduced by its uses in corporate culture, cybernetics and the internet, and particularly entertainment systems.  However he does cover (briefly) cell systems and immune systems, and spends more time with cities as organisms (which I find very interesting) before he gets caught in the morass of the world wide web and online games.

However, just when I was about to give up on the book, he steers into emergence and decentralization in politics and gives the WTO Seattle protests of 1999 as an example.  (Of course, this type of organizing was going on long before this--I see it dating back to feminist and anarchist organizing in the 1970s.  For more about what was happening back then, see my post Social Movements in the Seventies, 3/30/09.)  I wish he spent more time on this.

This is a good book to read in conjunction with other systems books and books on decentralization.  By itself, it’s only a small (but significant piece) but it’s incredibly useful in understanding the whole.  I’ll end with the warning at the end of the book: “ is both the promise and the peril of swarm logic that the higher level behavior is almost impossible to predict in advance.  You never really know what lies at the other end of a phase transition until you press play and find out.  That is the lesson of Gerald Edelman’s recipe for simulating a flesh-and-blood organism: 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.”

That’s emergence.

Quote of the Day:  “This emphasis on rules might seem like the antithesis of the open-ended, organic systems… but nothing could be further from the truth.  Emergent systems... are rule governed systems: their capacity for learning and growth and experimentation derives from their adherence to low-level rules…  If any of these systems… suddenly started following their own rules, or doing away with rules altogether, the system would stop working: there’d be no global intelligence, just a teeming anarchy of isolated agents, a swarm of without logic.  Emergent behaviors… are all about living within the boundaries defined by rules, but also using that space to create something greater than the sum of its parts.” - Steven Johnson

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