Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
by Scott Snyder, The Believer, June 2006
by Charles D'Ambrosio, The Believer, May 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2005
Salon.com, February 2002 (core member of Surrealist movement, painter, poet, wife of Max Ernst and author of Between Lives: An Artist and Her World)
The New York Times Magazine, August 2001 (actor and playwright)
Time Out New York, January 1997 (on publicaton of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
By Steven Johnson
Scribner

By John Glassie
(Wired Magazine, October 2001)

What do you call it when billions of unintelligent neurons in the human brain somehow self-organize to produce cognition and consciousness? How about when equally unintelligent Harvester ants create colonies with cemeteries, trash heaps, and divisions of labor that change to meet changing needs?

In both cases, you call it emergent behavior within a complex system. And you can call Emergence: The Secret Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software a pretty impressive attempt by a non-scientist to explain the processes by which this kind of higher-level adaptive activity can "emerge" from interconnections among perfectly stupid individual components. The author, cofounder and editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Feed.com and author of Interface Culture, gives us a helpful overview of complexity – a study that, as the title suggests, takes on all manner of systems, from the neural network to the "superorganism" of the city.

Johnson's book is by no means the first or the most authoritative on the subject. Among others, there is Emergence: From Chaos to Order by John Holland, the MacArthur Fellow known as the "father of genetic algorithms." But this is one of the most accessible.

Complexity and emergence are hot subjects right now. They're not, however, really new. "Indeed," writes Johnson, "some of the great minds of the last few centuries – Adam Smith, Friedrich Engels, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing – contributed to the unknown science of self-organization." In the last few decades, people such as Edward O. Wilson (ants), Evelyn Fox Keller (slime mold), and Marvin Minsky (the mind), have helped spawn a new discipline.

Today, plenty of people have jumped on the complexity-theory bandwagon and tried to apply its bottom-up processes to everything from business management to creativity. And Johnson himself sees emergence – or the potential for using its principles – in politics, in media communications, and on highways.

The author's chief purpose, however, is to champion the power of emergence in the digital age. "For as long as complex organisms have been alive, they have lived under the laws of self-organization," he writes. "But in recent years our day-to-day life has become overrun with artificial emergence: systems built with a conscious understanding of what emergence is, systems designed to exploit those laws the same way our nuclear reactors exploit the laws of atomic physics. Up to now, the philosophers of emergence have struggled to interpret the world. But now they are staring to change it."

Bottom-up adaptation is already at work in artificial-intelligence Labs and in programs that can be said to learn, such as voice- and handwriting-recognition software. Johnson believes that even higher-form learning can result from software innovation and the interconnections of networked units. The real value of interactivity, he suggests, may lie not in our individual ability to interact with a system but in the collective knowledge such interactions can provide. The Web, he says, "will be the central warehouse and marketplace for all our patterns of mediated behavior."

Unfortunately, most current examples of networked emergence -- including the filtering software behind Amazon's customer recommendations and the collaborative content system of plastic.com, which Johnson helped to create -- are still somewhat underwhelming.

But these will soon function, Johnson says, "beyond our wildest dreams," and we will "be collaborating on a scale only rivaled by the cities we first started building 6,000 years ago."

This may be. We'll have to wait and see how these principles are utilized. In the meantime, we at least have a new buzzword to employ.