Not Exactly the Copernican Revolution. A Review of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software

by Chris Leslie

  1. It is easy to believe that we stand today at the pinnacle of human understanding of the universe. Our confidence in our understanding of how the universe is organized is important to our worldview, and in our bravado we make fun of those who believe(d) that the Earth was the center of the universe. We are so sure that the Earth is not the center of the universe that, even without a full understanding of how one could prove it, we rest assured that it has been proven and that there is no possibility of error in the conclusion.
  2. The principle of emergence does not exactly overturn our model of the universe—but it does suggest that we need to revise our understanding of how the universe is organized. We believe that complicated mathematical laws of physics guide heavenly bodies in their paths; the rules are abstract equations that tell matter what to do. This positivist hangover allows us to make calculations that are backed up by observations. But the inductive method fails to consider that heavenly bodies are in fact large collections of independent particles that have joined together based on certain rules. The simple associative principle that causes individual dust particles to clump together—or fail to clump together—is the reason why we can observe the mathematical laws of motion; it is not as if the laws of motion are a priori the framework of the universe, but they are large-scale patterns of behavior that we derive from the aggregate behavior of smaller units. According to this principle, the complex generalizations we know as the laws of motion in large systems “emerge” from the simple, basic principles of individual particles.
  3. In his study Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, media theorist Steven Johnson argues that emergence is the essential paradigm for our age. Johnson writes: “Just like the clock maker metaphors of the Enlightenment, or the dialectical logic of the nineteenth century, the emergent worldview belongs to our moment in time, shaping our habits and coloring our perception of the world” (66). Emergence is an alternative way of understanding complex systems. A hierarchical, top-down system attempts to use a centralized decision-making process based on abstract rules to guide behavior. The emergent position looks at complex systems differently: a small number of rules that are processed by individual units are the best method of explaining the aggregate behavior. While a statistical analysis of an emergent system will lead to abstract mathematical laws, these laws do not explain why individual units behave the way they do.
  4. Johnson notes that the principle of emergence operates in the natural world but is not obvious when one looks at systems from the outside. He begins his study with a description of ants for this reason: the “myth of the ant queen” invites us to draw an analogy to human organizations where centralized authority is seen to direct the behavior of individuals (hence the totalitarian threat of Star Trek’s Borg Queen and Princess Bala’s fight for individuality in Antz). The skillful, monarch-like insect in her apartment deploying the necessary number of drones to provide for the colony’s supply, defense, and reproduction is an appealing stage from which moviegoers can achieve a cathartic sense of freedom. Yet, Johnson writes, this analogy is false; the ant queen does not direct an army of drones. Drones take direction from a small set of simple signals released by other drones. A drone collecting food leaves behind a special scent, and other drones that pick up that scent will follow the path to the food source. The most direct path to the food becomes the most successful and so pragmatic behavior helps drones to “determine” the best path to take. No one drone knows where the food is or has a map of the terrain, nor does the queen: the emergent system is smarter than the individual members of the colony and acts as an effective decision-making process.
  5. While the example of the ant colony is a fascinating story of the natural world, it is the potential of such “smart” systems that interests Johnson. After this skillful survey of emergence in the natural world, Johnson explains how human systems such as cities are affected by emergence. He adroitly overviews the relevant sources in communication theory, computer science, biology, psychology, and urban studies, making his book a worthwhile survey and a springboard for further study. Johnson then turns to an examination of the implications of emergence for new media, and in part three he explicitly demonstrates how the principles of emergence can be used to improve existing systems and to survive the onslaught of information that is likely on the horizon.
  6. Using an analysis of TiVo as a guide, Johnson suggests that “clusters” of consumer interest will emerge as a force more powerful than media monopolies. The result, Johnson writes, will be that users will create their own systems of understanding:
    In the end, the most significant role for the Web in all of this will not involve its capacity to stream high-quality video images or booming surround sound. . . . Instead, the Web will contribute the meta-data that enables these clusters to self-organize. It will be the central warehouse and marketplace for all our patterns of mediated behavior, and instead of those patterns being restricted to the invisible gaze of Madison Avenue and TRW, consumers will be able to tap into that pool themselves and create communal maps of all the entertainment and data available online. (220)
  7. The chapters of the study form a carefully crafted argument, and here Johnson turns from being a chronicler of scientific culture and makes an important intervention as a media theorist. Emergence points to a future of new media, one that must be considered by those theorists and practitioners who would like to emphasize the associative, thought-expanding nature of the internet. If media studies is ever to move beyond its obsession with the hierarchical, panoptic threat offered by the Internet, it will be through books like Johnson’s that provide powerful metaphors which can guide future work. Johnson is confident that emergence will play an important part in media systems as they increase in complexity. The future will need systems that can adapt on the ground level, helping users to seek out information and resources that are relevant from an overwhelming number of options.
  8. While industrial energy seems devoted to creating efficient and transparent hardware and services that increase the user’s ability to direct his or her experience from a centralized location—faster networks, more efficient search engines, more efficient processors—these systems will soon fail to keep up with the sheer volume of information available. Emergent systems, however, would not be overwhelmed by this volume and are, in fact, a natural solution to such hugely complex problems. The question then becomes, do our current systems, business plans, and curricula reflect our understanding that hierarchical systems are only a temporary solution, and are we ready to implement the systems, business plans, and curricula that will be a part of the emergent technologies that will be useful and necessary in the near future? Individuals who are prepared will not be left behind as hierarchical systems become increasingly ineffective.