Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 6 Feb 02 16:51
Our next guest, Steven Johnson, is the author of _Emergence: The Connected Lives Of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software_, acclaimed as one of the best books of 2001 by Esquire, The Village Voice, Amazon.com, and Discover Magazine. Johnson was also cofounder and editor-in-chief of FEED, the pioneering online magazine, as well as a co-creator of the Webby-award-winning community site, Plastic.com. He was named by Newsweek as one of the "50 People Who Matter Most on the Internet." Johnson's writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Wired, Lingua Franca, Harper's, and the London Guardian, as well as on the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani called his first book, _Interface Culture_,"one of the most thoughtful, literate studies yet published on the cultural impact of recent technological changes." Johnson has degrees in Semiotics and English Literature from Brown and Columbia Universities. He lives in Manhattan's West Village with his wife and son. _Emergence_ is what happens when an interconnected system of relatively simple elements self-organizes to form more intelligent, more adaptive higher-level behavior. Drawing upon evolutionary theory, urban studies, neuroscience, and computer games, _Emergence_ is a guidebook to one of the key components of twenty-first-century culture. Until recently, Johnson explains, the disparate philosophers of emergence have worked to interpret the world. But today they are starting to change it. This book is the riveting story of that change and what it means for the future. Leading the discussion is recent inkwell.vue guest Derek M. Powazek, who is a writer and designer living in San Francisco. His book on the design of community spaces online, "Design for Community," was published last year by New Riders. Derek lives online at powazek.com. Please join me in welcoming Steven and Derek to inkwell.vue!
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Wed 6 Feb 02 23:18
Thanks, Linda! Steven, let's begin by talking about how this book came to be. What inspired/motivated you to write it?
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Thu 7 Feb 02 20:36
There's a funny story about the inspiration for this book. After I finished writing the last one, I spent about six months doing very early-stage research, trying to figure out where to go next, and I was basically following two distinct paths: reading books of urban theory and history, and reading books about brain science. I thought for a long time that I was going to have to make an either-or decision at some point, either a book about cities, or a book about minds. And then I happened to get as a birthday present a book of old city maps from the mid-19th-century that included a map of Hamburg that looked uncannily like a profile view of the human brain. And somehow that image set off a chain of connections in my head, and I started to think that maybe that there was a book to be written that was about cities *and* brains. It ended up being more than that, of course (there's more about ants than about brains, for instance) but that map was the original spark. Once it became clearer to me that I was writing a book about bottom-up or self-organizing systems, I found myself drawing on a number of earlier books for inspiration, books that had also wrestled with complexity theory and emergence with a popular audience in mind. (One of those books, of course, is the masterful Out of Control, by the Well's own Kevin Kelly.) One of the things that I was trying to add to the already impressive library was a more developed connection between cities and emergence, a connection that appears here and there in the literature of complexity, though it's rarely more than a passing reference. So I wanted to bring urban development more fully into the world of emergence. (Fortunately, Jane Jacobs had already done most of the work for me.) And of course I wanted to connect all of these ideas to what had been happening in the digital world -- on the Web, and in videogame culture -- over the past few years. But I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to get into that over the next few days... This should be fun!
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Thu 7 Feb 02 23:13
Before we get into the content of the book, let's get our terminology straight. Two words that appear over and over in your book are "emergence" and "adaptive." If you would, please give us the basic outline of what they mean and how you use them.
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Fri 8 Feb 02 08:46
The emergent systems that I talk about in the book are systems that are made of many lower-level constituent parts, each of which follows relatively simple rules of interaction and lacks an awareness of the overall state of the system. Out of the semi-random exchanges of these many agents, a higher level order arises: ants organize into colonies, urban dwellers into neighborhoods. That movement from low-level interaction to higher-level order is what we call emergence. "Adaptive" is a key term as well -- the systems I talk about are often called "complex adaptive systems." I stressed the term quite a bit because the systems that I'm interested in aren't just examples of patterns emerging out of seemingly random interactions; they're often patterns that are *good* for something. The emergent behavior of ant colonies helps them pull off incredible feats of resource management and engineering; neighborhood formation helps cities organize and store collective information and makes them more intelligible spaces. Sometimes that adaptive behavior is the result of an evolutionary process (as in the ant colonies); sometimes it's the result of direct human interaction (like some of the software programs I look at.) But in all the adaptive systems there's some feedback mechanism pushing the system towards a more efficient state... I'd add one thing here: the book is not exclusively focused on textbook examples of complex adaptive systems. There's a kind of philosophical approach to these systems that's usually called "bottom-up" as opposed to top-down hierarchies. So I was interested generally in systems that didn't need leaders, systems that organized from below. And that led me to write about things like the Amazon recommendation engine, or the anti-WTO protest movements, that technically aren't complex adaptive systems, but nonetheless share a certain sensibility and organizational structure.
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Fri 8 Feb 02 11:58
Hi Steve! Congratulations on a wonderful book. I loved it. Are you acquainted with Anthony Townsend at NYU? He has some interesting things to say to city planners in regard to the effects of wireless communications. Have you thought about emergent behaviors of intelligent units (i.e., humans) who are able to "swarm" in new ways through the use of mobile communication technology? Ronfeldt and Arquilla talk about the swarming tactics used by WTO protestors in Seattle (in the book "Netwar), and I thought about possible connections with the emergent behavior of dumb units that you, Kevin, et.al., discuss.
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Fri 8 Feb 02 12:22
Welcome, Howard! Say ... aren't *you* writing a book a bit like that? ;-) Steven may be limited to a once-a-day check in here at the beginning, so it's okay if we double up on questions a bit. Everyone should feel free to post their thoughts! That said, I have another question. Steven, one of the things that struck me while reading your book is the whiplash pace you hop through diverse examples when discussing an idea. In just a few pages you'll go from discussing the media, to air conditioning systems, to the way our brains work, to the way computers work, to the web ... and it's all tied together. I really like this kind of associative thinking, and I know I've always thought this way. But from my experience in conversations, sometimes I bump into a linear thinker who just won't follow me from hop to hop. So I was wondering, did you have any editors or reviewers just didn't *get* it when you were writing? Was it hard to communicate the vision for the book in the beginning? Have you heard from anyone who is just lost by it now?
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Fri 8 Feb 02 15:22
Hi Howard, very pleased to hear that you enjoyed the book. I don't know Townsend or his work. What department is he in? (I'm actually teaching a grad seminar on "Emergent Communities" at NYU this semester.) The wireless urban swarming idea is a fascinating one -- I've been thinking a little about what happens when we have a full markup language for GPS co-ordinates and people starting filling the real world with virtual annotations. Eventually you might start seeing the kind of taste-clustering that Amazon does enacted in urban environments -- imagine exploring a new city that way: "people who liked this block also liked these other blocks." Or even better: "people who liked some other block in some other city also liked this block in this city." Derek, as far as the whiplash jumps go: I had more trouble with that in the last book, where I think a lot of people picked it up expecting it to be a straightforward survey of interface design, and suddenly found themselves reading about Dickens. Emergence makes it clearer from the outset that it's interested in a pattern of behavior that exists in many different disciplines and at different scales. (The subtitle alone prepares you for the jumps.) So I think people have had an easier time following the threads this time around. The one audience for whom the pace can perhaps be a problem is serious complexity theory hounds who've read all the popular literature and dabbled in the more academic stuff; I think they can sometimes wish that I'd gone into more detail on, say, the ant colony material -- spent thirty pages on it instead of ten. But I think that would have been a different kind of book. There have also been a few folks who object to the connections made to the videogame world -- it's almost like there's something demeaning in talking about SimCity in the rarified context of complexity and self-organization. But I suspect these are largely folks who haven't actually played SimCity yet... :)
RUSirius (rusirius) Fri 8 Feb 02 15:44
Notions like emergence and self-organization have fed into political ideas about devoluting the state, which are really problematic. Do you deal with that in the book and if so, how?
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Fri 8 Feb 02 16:32
RU, I would say that I deal with the political implications of emergence gingerly in the book -- it's such a thorny issue, and I think you're right that theories of self-organization have a history of being yoked to anti-government positions. I was worried that if I spent too much time on the politics topic it would turn into a distraction. So I dealt with it in two primary ways: I tried to make the point, at several moments in the book, that bottom-up approaches were not a cure-all, and weren't necessarily intrinsically better than top-down ones. Cities, for instance, solve a lot problems from below, but they still need top-down, state-subsidized fire departments, etc. And then I also tried to make that point that if you were set on applying complexity theory to political systems, and eliminating all the top-down forces in a society, then the state was only one potential target: the modern multinational corporation is probably one of the most top-down, hierarchical structures on the planet. If you really believe in the power of self-organization, then the big companies have to wither away alongside the big governments (at least the governments these days are increasingly chosen by bottom-up democratic systems.) To that end, I included a brief nod to the anti-WTO protest movements at the very close of the book, talking a little about how they had modeled their political structure after swarm systems... Apparently, I'm told that the book is developing a little bit of a following the quasi-anarchist, protest community -- when I've done radio call-in shows, the enthusiastic calls that have a political slant tend to be from anti-globalization folks, and not hardcore libertarians.
Rip Van Winkle (keta) Fri 8 Feb 02 17:24
Well, that would lead me to ask, where does "self consciousness" enter in. You talk about systems where the constituent parts "lack an awareness of the overall state of the system." Does it make a difference if those parts *want* to have an awareness of the overall state? In some ways, right now, it seems to me that the more sophisticated the constituent parts are about comprehending points to intervene in the system (the grander their assumptions about what they think they know about the overall state) the more likely they are to make "mistakes" in their actions. Like how urban redevelopment screws up neighborhood self-organization more often than it furthers it. And yet, for anti-globalization folks, looking for points to intervene in the system feels like the only game in town.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 9 Feb 02 10:28
Some comments: > So I dealt with it in two primary ways: I tried to make the point, at > several moments in the book, that bottom-up approaches were not a > cure-all, and weren't necessarily intrinsically better than top-down > ones. Good point, and it raises a question for me... how you apply normative thinking to (or within) self-organizing systems. It seems to me that practicality would significantly outweigh moral and ethical principle in guiding their evolution. In fact, don't we see that in 'realpolitik'? > the modern multinational corporation is probably one of the > most top-down, hierarchical structures on the planet. If you really > believe in the power of self-organization, then the big companies have > to wither away alongside the big governments (at least the governments > these days are increasingly chosen by bottom-up democratic systems.) To > that end, I included a brief nod to the anti-WTO protest movements at > the very close of the book, talking a little about how they had modeled > their political structure after swarm systems... But I'm missing how you connect the dots here... e.g. how does the self-organizing "nodal politics" of the protest movements have any actual impact on corporate organization/behavior? Won't this be driven more by business revolution (which is also sort of in the air) than political wonking and maneuvering? (It's interesting to me to see the, er, emergence of limited liability companies as the busines structure of choice these days... they tend to be flatter and more flexible than corporations... but that's a digression).
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sat 9 Feb 02 10:44
The swarming tactics of the WTO protestors were effective street tactics, using small, autonomous but strategically aligned groups, who independently acted under a previously agreed general plan, coordinated by real-time communications using mobile phones, Internet sites, and pagers. At least as described in Ronfeldt and Arquilla. That's not the same as a political philosophy.
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Sat 9 Feb 02 15:24
Great stuff, all! Steven, I know you may want to respond to the above stuff (I'd especially like to hear what you have to say to keta's comment #10), but I wanted to throw another log on the fire for when you log back in. When we spoke a year ago for Design for Community (http://designforcommunity.com/display.cgi/200109181843), you were doing a lot of thinking about FEED and Plastic. I was wondering: How did your experience with content-based virtual communities inform Emergence? And, in hindsight, with FEED on ice and Plastic struggling back to life, what have you learned about emergence on the web? Did either system ever get there, in your eyes?
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Sun 10 Feb 02 11:52
I've had a day of travel to think over Keta's question about self-awareness, which I read just before heading to the airport. It's a great question. As Howard rightly points out, there's a simpler answer, which is to say that the protest groups were "swarming" in Seattle in physical ways, in terms of how they choreographed their movements through the streets. But let's take the question on Keta's terms, in terms of broader political strategy and not just protest strategy. It seems to me that the question of awareness revolves around what motivates your actions, and not just your overall assessment of the global system. Think about it in city terms: we're aware of the system of neighborhoods, but the individual decisions out of which neighborhoods are created -- to visit this restaurant and not this one, to cross town to visit this market, to move closer to your kid's school -- are motivated by forces one level down the chain. You're thinking *and* acting locally, and yet the sum of all those decisions creates the global order of neighborhoods. You don't patronize a certain bar because you're actively trying to create a certain kind of neighborhood. The people who are actively trying to create a certain kind of neighborhood tend to be the planners, who nine times out of ten end up screwing it up. How does that translate into politics? The other swarm-like property of the Seattle protestors was the fact that they were a gathering of loosely affiliated interest groups, with no common, overarching ideology. (And no clearly defined leaders.) They were certainly aware of the broader system that they were trying to insert themselves into, but they were motivated by a diverse group of local causes. It's a kind of mixed-use version of protest politics. What I like about that approach it how it mirrors one of the core principles of emergent systems, which is their dependence on random encounters between agents. Ant colonies and sidewalks both rely on the random swerve of an ant stumbling across the pheromone trail of a neighbor, or a city dweller stumbling across a new shop on the way to somewhere else. The intelligence of the overall system relies on that randomness -- it can't grow or evolve without it. So there's something fitting in the protest groups clustering together in interesting new configurations, each cluster made up of different ideological perspectives colliding with one another in new ways. I suppose it's a rainbow coalition in new clothing, but there's something more deliberately chaotic in the Seattle model, and less touchy-feely... JonL, nice to see you here. Can you rephrase the normative question? I'm in South Miami Beach, so perhaps the sun is slowing down my brain, but I didn't quite understand it...
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 10 Feb 02 13:16
Heh, let's see if I can remember what *I* was thinking! I'm just wondering about the ethical dimension of 'swarms' or 'hive mind' or whatever we call emergent entities, especially the activist adhocracies mentioned above. It seems to me that emergent entities are inherently driven by the practical, and not so much by higher principles. And I'm thinking that some of the best moments in human history occur when principle is given more weight than pragmatic thinking. So I'm thinking that we might lose something when we organize from the bottom up, and emergent forces drive behavior and, presumably, evolution. It was just a thought, though... I've got peripheral thoughts bouncing 'round that contradict my comment... e.g. maybe the emergent behaviors can be driven by principle just as well as by practical concerns. I've been back and forth on this. I've preached the promise of cyberspace adhocracies, but at the same time I'm thinking that an angry mob may be an emergent entity, too...
democracy being a left thing, anyway (ludlow) Sun 10 Feb 02 14:08
why couldn't altruism be an emergent property? I don't see the obstacle.
RUSirius (rusirius) Sun 10 Feb 02 14:40
Al Qaeda of course also fits to this model, or a close relative of it... which tells us the obvious, that there's no intrinsic moral value to its use as a tactic, even if there's an implicit anti-authoritarian idea behind it in the abstract.
Rafe Colburn (rafeco) Sun 10 Feb 02 14:49
I don't think that it's certain the al-Qaeda fits this model. That was the conventional wisdom a few months ago, but it seems like they had a more top down structure than was originally suspected.
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Sun 10 Feb 02 17:57
Arquilla and Ronfeldt's anthology gets into some detail about terrorist social networks.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 10 Feb 02 19:09
I think RU and I are close in our thinking on this. Pete: I think a "group mind" or swarm or whatever would tend to be pragmatic - altruistic if it fits the group goal. But my question was really about situations where the principled behavior would contradict the more pragmatic goal or solution.
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Mon 11 Feb 02 08:19
Jon, thanks for the rephrase. Let me try to answer in a way that potentially connects to Derek's question about online communities. I talk a lot in the book about the Slashdot/Plastic model of group filtering and feedback -- where contributions are rated by other users, and well-regarded contributions result in "Karma" points doled out to users, which give them special privileges in the community. I talk about this as a bottom-up approach to editing, as opposed to a top-down approach where you hire a bunch of full-time editors who comb through the site and delete obnoxious posts and promote the insightful ones. Now, there is a danger in this kind of self-organizing approach, which is the "mob rule" idea that you allude to: the ideas that get rewarded are those that most Plastic/Slashdot users already agree with; ideas that are out of the mainstream could potentially be shut down by the group consensus. (This is a real issue, since you can filter out posts that are below a certain quality threshold on both sites.) This has produced a number of fascinating -- though sometimes distracting -- arguments on Plastic: because it has effectively become a politics weblog, unlike Slashdot, there's a constant debate over whether 1) the site slants to the left in its politics, and 2) right-leaning posters are given poor ratings by the community just for their political views. So does that mean that self-organizing community systems necessarily sacrifice the "higher principle" of diversity? (Leading to a kind of collective Daily Me.) I don't think so. One of the points I make in the book is that the Slashdot/Plastic model may trend towards a groupthink -- though it practice I wouldn't say that it has resulted in too narrow a focus -- but that trend is only there because of the specific way that the software has been written. You could just as easily create a bottom-up system that would promote diverse voices (and controversy) simply by tweaking the rules a bit: let everybody rate each post, but instead of promoting the highly-regarded posts, you promote the posts that have attracted the strongest responses, both positive and negative. In that kind of system, the fringes sudden come alive: instead of favoring the center, the Rush Limbaughs and the Michael Moores suddenly rise the top -- the voices that you either love or hate. In that kind of system, you'd have a local motivation of "do I like this guy or not" creating a higher principle of diversity. You just need to set up to the rules properly to make it work.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 11 Feb 02 12:49
Good idea - do you know anyone who's doing it?
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Mon 11 Feb 02 13:09
Jonl - Anyone *could* do it, just by tweaking the Slash code that runs both sites. An interesting idea. Even better: Allow each user to pick, or have some kind of "wizard" that asks the user a series of questions, and then intuits what kind of filter he/she would best respond to. But my question is still this: Are these systems necessary to create emergence on the web, or are they merely icing? In other words, are we really seeing emergence on the web yet? Or does the slime mold still have us beat? Personally, I do think there are emergent patterns in the web, but they are very hard to measure in terms of one site. Because the net is so diverse, with so many users doing so many things, in order to look for emergent behavior, you have to look at what people do in total. Blogdex (http://blogdex.media.mit.edu/) comes close, for example, but that only looks at links (not email or IM or any of the other ways people communicate online). And just to echo some of the other lingering questions: Is an angry mob an emergent system? Is altruism an emergent property? What about Al Qaeda? When you get the chance, Steven, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 11 Feb 02 18:52
I think we had "emergent" political forces within early net.activism, some more successful than others. Shabbir Safdar and Jonah Seiger told me that their "black web page" campaign in response to the CDA couldn't happen today, because the web is part of an industry... then it was an "electronic frontier," and you could aggregate meaningful support by unleashing memes. You have to have the right kind of petri dish to colonize dissent, I guess.
RUSirius (rusirius) Tue 12 Feb 02 10:15
My personal experience is that anything I try to grow organically virtually doesn't even sprout, if it has a bit of money and gets mainstream publicity it gets to live awhile. Everybody always tells me the counterculture model should work for me, but it never has. But maybe that's just me...
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