Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Tue 12 Feb 02 10:45
Derek, answering your many lingering questions... :) I think you describe the state of the web vis-a-vis emergence very well: there are patterns forming out there, but it's very hard to see them without new tools, meta-filters that sit on top of the web and look at all the lower level behavior. The metablogs are one version of this, though I don't think anyone has totally nailed that one yet. I also think something like Google's zeitgeist index is an interesting model: using patterns in search requests as a way of visualizing the emergent "group mind." But we definitely need more synthesizing routines -- culling relevant data from around the web and making it more coherent... I'm hoping that XML will give us a framework for that, though I haven't really been following the latest developments very closely... I guess I would say that an angry mob is a kind of emergent behavior, somewhat in the way that a flock of birds is a kind of emergent behavior. Whether it's adaptive or not is another matter... And as for Al Qaeda, it's very much an open question right now. Certainly a number of readers have remarked to me that there's something eerie reading the last pages of my book where I talk about the decentralized, cell-based behavior of the new protest groups -- it sounds so much like the general description of Al Qaeda that has been floating around for the past few months. It's an interesting day to be typing this response -- given the warning issued yesterday about a potential new attack today. It's just too early to tell, I think, how decentralized and leaderless the terrorist network turned out to be. But certainly Rumsfeld has made it clear that he thinks of them as a distributed system, and not a unified enemy. I saw a press conference a few months ago where he actually described the war as a "non-linear war" to a baffled press corps. He actually uttered the sentence: "it may be difficult for our linear minds to understand it." It sounded more like a chaos theory seminar than a Pentagon briefing...
Bob 'rab' Bickford (rab) Tue 12 Feb 02 11:35
I'm a bit startled at the notion that Safdar and Seiger would even try to imply that the Black Web Pages thing was somehow "theirs" or whatever that comment was assuming. Sure, they did a great job of talking up the idea -- but hundreds if not thousands of _other_ people did the same and *that* was why it took off (combined with the smaller overall size of the Web 'community' back then, of course). They would be deluding themselves to think that it was all or mostly due to them.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 12 Feb 02 12:02
Um, rab - VTW and CDT were the genesis of the idea. Shabbir and Jonah cooked it up, though there were certainly other folks involved. And it's not that they tried to take credit for it in some egocentric way, they were just describing matter of factly how it evolved and suggesting that it wouldn't work now. And come to think of it, there was a degree to which it was more calculated than emergent. There actually was a stragegy, which was not so much to prevent the passage of the bill as to raise consciousness about its impact, helping lay groundwork for the successful challlenge in the Supreme Court.
Bob 'rab' Bickford (rab) Tue 12 Feb 02 12:11
Jon, I know damned well exactly what the genesis and development of the idea was; your pretense that I don't seems to me merely an attempt to deliberately misunderstand my point so as to avoid dealing with the reality here.
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 12 Feb 02 12:14
Am I reading you correctly Bob, is your point that an "emergent" collective action should not be credited to the strategists but to everyone who took up the cause and became an agent of the action?
Rafe Colburn (rafeco) Tue 12 Feb 02 12:26
He has no point. If those guys hadn't started out by saying "people should turn their web pages black to protest the CDA," then there would have been no black web pages campaign, period. Therefore, they deserve whatever credit they get, which is pretty a insignificant amount in the greater scheme of things. It's not like they're cashing it in for fame and riches.
a man, a plan, and a parking ticket (clm) Tue 12 Feb 02 15:15
Hi, all. I'd like to jump in with a comment and some questions for Steven. I just read the book over the weekend and found it quite enjoyable and thought provoking. Musing a bit about the prospects for convergence as you discuss it in chapter 6 (The Mind Readers..., around p217), I find myself nodding in agreement with the idea that the arrival of "genuine convergence [will] transform the media landscape." My question: do you still feel (if you ever did) that such a transformation is probable within five years, or do you see genuine convergence taking considerably longer?
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Tue 12 Feb 02 18:50
Any really great juicy examples of emergence that had to hit the cutting room floor? That you have handy to share with us? I applaud your ability to keep the book as short as you did. Was that easy or painful?
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Tue 12 Feb 02 20:47
Great questions, hlr and clm. Bob raises an interesting point (albeit with a smidge too much vigor for my taste): Where do the intentions of the individual come into play in emergent systems? Or put another way: When I was reading your book, Steven, I couldn't help thinking about The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. For a while I couldn't understand why my mind was lumping them together (Aside: Have other people compared the two to you?), but part of it might be this: The Tipping Point is about that moment when something changes and the tidal wave begins, often expressed by a single thing, decision, or person. Emergence seems to be about what happens after that, when the change is propagated throughout the system, gaining strength. Does that make sense? Kinda?
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Wed 13 Feb 02 07:48
Okay, several questions lined up -- here we go: Convergence: in a way, it's already happened in my household. I've converted most of my audio CDs into MP3s that I play mostly off my computer and my iPod. I watch TV mostly off my TiVo, which is just a little Linux box with a 30 gig drive. When I listen to radio, it's almost exclusively over the Web. I watch DVDs quite often on a computer, particularly when I'm on the road. So the bits aren't exactly coming from the same source, and it certainly doesn't feel as integrated as the convergence scenarios usually make it out to be, but the computer has become the central hub for most of my media consumption. The point I was trying to make in the book is that when you do have true convergence -- where every show, every CD, every movie is available somewhere online 24/7, then what will happen is that group filters a la Slashdot will start to play an increasingly important role in helping you select what to watch or listen to, just as they now help many of us decide what to read every day on the web. Eventually, I think these filters will replace things like television networks as a central organizing principle: you won't turn on your TV and check to see what's on HBO or NBC; you'll see what's on the Slashdot channel (or the Well channel), which won't be original programming, of course -- it'll just be pointers to other people's programs, selected by the community. Howard, I didn't have too much trouble keeping the book on the shorter side, given that I still had a full-time day job trying to keep FEED and Plastic afloat while I was writing it. The next book is going to be an interesting experience: it'll be the first one I've written as a full-time writer. Let's hope it's not 1,000 pages by the end. :) The two large topics that ended on the cutting room floor were 1) some more detailed brain-related material, some of which involved how distributed groups of neurons synchronize their firing, which may explain part of how consciousness works, and 2) material on the new urbanism, which has tried to apply the lessons of Jane Jacobs' work to both urban renewal projects and new developments, many of them suburban in location. I wish that I'd had the time to do a bit more on 2), but the brain material will show up in the next book, the proposal for which I've just sold to Scribner. It's going to be entirely on the brain, though I hope from a relatively fresh perspective (there are a number of brain books -- and documentaries -- out there right now.) Finally, the tipping point. I think there are a number of connections between Emergence and Malcolm's book -- a number of reviewers made the connection as well, usually referring to the style more than the content, but not always. I was actually going to bring up the tipping point in reference to the black pages discussion: that phenomenon seemed more tipping point than emergence to me. Tipping points are more about fads and the individual who create them: somebody starts switching the background color of their web page, and suddenly a thousand people are doing it. But with emergence, you have to have more complicated patterns appearing for something to behave like a complex system; it has to get more *organized* in some way. So a crime wave sweeping through a city is more like a fad than an emergent phenomenon; while the formation of dozens of demographically-specific neighborhoods would be an example of emergence. Emergent systems often have tipping points (you need a certain number of ants for the colony to start behaving as a unified system); but tipping points don't always lead to emergent behavior.
a man, a plan, and a parking ticket (clm) Wed 13 Feb 02 08:59
Thanks, that's a good distinction. And wouldn't you also say that emergence sometimes can be seen as just an aspect of a larger, perhaps non-emergent system? I wonder if your example of self- organization with the eBay community is an instance of this. And I see your point about how a sort of convergence has already happened. > Eventually, I think these filters will replace things like > television networks At least as we now know them, right? Do you think it's possible that networks might transform themselves and adopt a form that allows them to play the new role? If the transition to 24/7 availability was to be sufficiently slow, might not existing networks have a chance to evolve?
Mark M. Harms (murphytune) Thu 14 Feb 02 10:53
As a student of evolution, I'm fascinated by these "bottom-up" systems and, though I haven't read the book, how they resemble the basic algorithms of evolution at all levels. They are almost fractal in that sense. Given that, it is interesting that "bottom-up" algorithms resulted in the evolution of "top-down" hierarchies. Human groups almost instinctively form themselves into status hierarchies. This tendency is exhibited in apes, lions, wolves and other social animals as well. Although, the purpose of the hierarchies seems to revolve more around mate selection and social cohesiveness than solving problems like finding food or avoiding predators. The corporate globalization protesters appear to employ diffused, swarm-like tactics now. But should the movement grow into a substantial political force, I think we would see top-down hierarchies form much like they do in any other political party. Some people seem to think social hierarchies will, or ought to, dissolve away. I would be suspicious of that as a practicality or a goal. Hierarchies must be adaptive or they wouldn't have emerged from evolution in such a prominent way.
goathead soup (satyr) Fri 15 Feb 02 19:19
Not sure this quite fits, but a mention of ANTs Software, Inc. seems de rigueur ... http://www.antssoftware.com/ As I understand it (which may be to say that I don't), the basis of their technology is the ability to usefully distribute non-multithreaded code over many processors by locating the dependencies in that code and using them as fragment boundaries. Those fragments are packaged in some additional code that makes the whole thing work together, in parallel.
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Sat 16 Feb 02 09:02
Mark makes an important point about the emergence of hierarchies out of bottom-up systems. Certainly humans have a keen awareness of status, and tend to form hierarchies in their social organizations. I suspect that this is not a universal trait for all social systems (human and otherwise) -- even among the primates there's a great deal of variation in how top-down the social systems are: like our close relatives, the chimps, we tend to aggregate into larger groups with clearly defined status roles. So when you put a bunch of humans together, hierarchy will tend to emerge. But not so if you try to put a bunch of, say, gibbons together -- they'll just break off into monogamous pairs and go their separate ways. I've often thought that it would be wonderful to model the emergence of social systems in software -- in a SimCity/Civilization type game. The problem is that as far as I know, all the simulations out there come with the social system pre-ordained (ie, if you're simulating ancient Rome, it's an empire, etc.) It would be really interesting to create a game where the only elements that were pre-ordained were the virtual minds of the citizens -- their appetites and fears, etc. Under certain circumstances, they might create a slave trade; under others, they might create some kind of primitive communism, and so on. That would be fascinating to explore I think -- perhaps there's software out there that I've missed that lets you do this...
a man, a plan, and a parking ticket (clm) Sat 16 Feb 02 11:57
Wouldn't one expect the emergence of hierarchies to correlate with the need for cooperation? Given the circumstances in which cooperation is beneficial (ref. Axelrod's book), a simple one-level hierarchy will also sometimes be beneficial. As in: "Let's stick together." "Ok. Which way do we go?" "I'll follow you."
Mark M. Harms (murphytune) Sat 16 Feb 02 16:13
Such a game as Steve describes would be fascinating. I don't know of any but I'm just a Mac user, an old Mac at that. Howard Bloom (whom I consider a wacko but a fascinating wacko) pulls together some interesting research on hierarchies in "The Lucifer Principle." One was with ants where the researcher noticed that colonies had a good number of slackers, ants that did little or no work. So he divided the hard workers from the lazy ants and put them in separate colonies. It turns out that many of the ants in the lazy colony became hardworking and many of the ants in the hard-working colony became lazy. And the two colonies equillibrated to about the same levels of efficiency. Bloom also noted that adolescent groups tend to form themselves into hierarchies where you have leaders, followers, bullies, bullied, etc. He cites a study where the leaders of various adolescent groups were put together (at a camp or something) and, sure enough, formed themselves into leaders, followers, bullies, bullied. Bloom makes a case that hierarchies are rather ingrained. But he's also offering this tendency as evidence for group selection (something I don't buy, not yet anyway). Are there examples of working non-hierarchical human societies? I belong to a writers' group that's essentially non-hierarchical. But that may be matter of smallness and circumstance. Things might different if we were trapped on a desert island.
Dave Core (dave-core) Mon 18 Feb 02 06:28
Steve: This question may be addressed in the last two chapters, (I am just reading the book now). It seems that human organizations could apply lessons from the ant colony to communitees of practice in a knowledge management scheme. Perhaps the intranet can take the place of pheremones, and some basic ground rules can take the place of DNA. Any thoughts about how that might play out? Also, do you think such a scheme should remain purely bottom-up or become somewhat hybrid top-down.
Derek M. Powazek (dmpowazek) Mon 18 Feb 02 12:31
Steven, speaking of games, I noticed that you wrote the cover story for this month's Wired Magazine on AI. Congrats! http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.03/ Could you tell us a bit about the story and how it's connected to the ideas in Emergence?
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Mon 18 Feb 02 19:03
Mark, as far as non-hierarchical human societies go: I happen to be in the middle of reading Robert Wright's entertaining book on evolutionary psychology, The Moral Animal, and a few hours after reading your post, I stumbled across this quote: "...social hierarchy can assume many forms, and in every human society it seems to find one... The pattern has been slow to come to light... The [Franz] Boasian bias against human nature was in some ways laudable -- a well meant reaction against crude political extensions of Darwinism that had countenanced poverty and various other social ills as 'natural.' But a well-meant bias is still a bias. Boas, Benedict, and Mead left out large parts of the story of humanity. And among those parts are the deeply human hunger for status and the seemingly universal presence of hierarchy..." In other words, are there large human societies without hierarchy? If you'd asked the question of anthropologists thirty or forty years ago, they probably would have said yes, definitely. But now I think the answer wouldn't come quite so easily. But certainly smaller groups should be able to make a run at non-hierarchical structures. Would you say that the Well is hierarchical? (An open question...) Dave, I do talk a bit more about knowledge management near the end, and it's a really fertile avenue for further exploration. One clear example to me is Amazon's recommendations engine: it was a huge resource for me as I was putting the book together, because once you get down below the level of bestseller books into quirkier mid-list and academic titles on specific subjects, the "people who bought this book also bought these other books" feature is *incredibly* useful for putting together a quick reading list of related texts on a specific topic. (it's not so much a recommendations engine in this context as it is a "relatedness" engine.) Now all you need to do is zoom in one level and start building connections between chapters and paragraphs in all those books, and then you would have an *extraordinary* knowledge management tool -- one that gets more organized and more useful the more people use it...
Howard Rheingold (hlr) Tue 19 Feb 02 10:53
Have you read Wright's most recent book, Nonzero, Steven?
Mark M. Harms (murphytune) Tue 19 Feb 02 19:20
"Would you say that the Well is hierarchical?" I haven't been posting on the Well long enough to make that judgment. So far, I'd have to say, if it's hierarchical, it's loosely hierarchical. It appears, however, some posters get more respect than others. The beauty of it is that whatever status is achieved is generally done on the strength of one's ideas rather than external factors like wealth, looks or occupation. Although, there may be a bias toward skilled writers. But the Well is not an organization that's under stress so to speak. Members aren't collectively struggling to survive or battle enemies. I wonder if that might be a rule: Groups under stress will tend to form stronger hierarchies. Leaders emerge to organize survival strategies.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 20 Feb 02 12:48
Interesting point about "wealth, looks or occupation." As you get to know posters, various coolness factors such as wealth or fame (or even looks in some cases) become more widely known. So some of the social status is pretty old-fashioned in its dynamics, with some skilled- writer and interesting-minds points weighing more heavily than in some scenes. Some gain credit for humor or affability and good interactive skills, too. Currently the WELL is under relatively less stress than at several historic points, but survival and other threats are part of the genuine environment online, too.
Bill Seitz (jonl) Wed 20 Feb 02 13:58
Email from Bill Seitz: Steven, I was disappointed by your msg35 about the bits on new urbanism hitting the cutting-room floor. Can you give us a crude summary of your findings there?
Bill Seitz (jonl) Wed 20 Feb 02 13:59
Also from Bill Seitz: Folks might be interested in Kent Beck's on-hold book draft on "Extreme Leadership" (a take-off on Extreme Programming, which he was an early proponent of). His book subtitle is "Reluctant Leader, Reluctant Follower", and includes the line "Imagine a team where every person understands that it is part of their job, however uncomfortable, to influence others and be influenced by others." The draft and some aging discussion are at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/extremeleadership
standingstill (freddy) Wed 20 Feb 02 23:02
hi steven...just to start off with, i'm finding this whole conversation so far to be pretty interesting. i admit i haven't read your book (yet) but i've had many similar conversations (concerning 'emergence' type ideas) with a much more brilliant friend of mine. if i may, i'd like to take a slight turn from the path this conversation has taken so far and ask you a particularly buddhist question. i'll totally understand if this is outside your interests. however, to my question: i wonder if you've read or studied any concerning the buddhist notion of the five skandhas? buddhist philosophy has a very similar idea to the notion of 'emergence'. in buddhism, as i see, the parallel is 'skandhas'. there are five of them: form (=body), feelings, perceptions, volitional impulses, and consciousness. together these atributes make up a whole person. none of them can exist independently, they are necessarily dependent on one another. everyone has all of them in varying proportions. individually (if they could exist that way) they function with only their unique purpose or nature. but since they exist together (always) as an aggregate...they ultimately function to create something much larger. a human being. i was wondering if you've read or studied much about this concept, and if so, how you've related it to your work.
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