Not Exactly the Copernican Revolution. A Review of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software
- Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains,
Cities, and Software. New York: Touchstone, 2002.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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)
- 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.
- 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.