inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #26 of 60: 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... 
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #27 of 60: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #28 of 60: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #29 of 60: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #30 of 60: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #31 of 60: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #32 of 60: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #33 of 60: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #34 of 60: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #35 of 60: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #36 of 60: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #37 of 60: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #38 of 60: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #39 of 60: 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...
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #40 of 60: 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."
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #41 of 60: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #42 of 60: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #43 of 60: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #44 of 60: 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...
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #45 of 60: Howard Rheingold (hlr) Tue 19 Feb 02 10:53
    
Have you read Wright's most recent book, Nonzero, Steven?
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #46 of 60: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #47 of 60: 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.   
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #48 of 60: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #49 of 60: 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
  
inkwell.vue.139 : Steven Johnson - Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
permalink #50 of 60: 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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