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Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

Author: Steven Johnson
Publisher: New York: Scribner, 2001
Review Published: October 2002

 REVIEW 1: Laura Kertz
 REVIEW 2: Nils Zurawski

"He did it again!", I was almost tempted to say about the new book by Steven Johnson. After Interface Culture, in which he led us through the fascinating worlds of visual perception, societal formations, and the secrets of screen design, Johnson now takes a look at the relationship between anthills, city streets, and self aware software to explain social self-organization or "Emergence." And like his first book this one too, moves at the edges of science, technology and social issues. What from the outset looks like a rather loose and accidental choice of subjects to compare becomes an intriguing piece of reading, which put this author among the top of today's science and technology writers. It is his unique combination of technological expertise and social imaginary that helps to comprehend what slime mold and the city streets of New York have in common, and why it is not entirely absurd to think of them as functioning along the same basic structures.

That said, although this book is certainly a worthy successor to his first work, it also shows the limits of his general approach to present issues of technology and social theory. One of the major criticisms in this regard is that he sometimes makes a rather unreflected use of the various materials he presents. This is especially apparent in his conclusions, and his analysis becomes somewhat weak and does not live up to the promises made throughout this rather brilliant discourse of an area of technology and science that undoubtedly has and will have an impact on social theory. But despite these criticisms, the book offers new perspectives on some very different, yet compellingly proximate issues.

In his attempt to explain social evolution and the connectedness of the world, Johnson is bound to two framing ideas. The first is the idea of the "global brain," a term which has been around the Internet from a very early stage and serves as one of the underlying narratives here. The second one is the idea of self-organization, of systems with no leading figure or pacemaker as he calls it. To best get an idea abut the book, I divide this review into three loosely connected parts: the form in which it is presented, the content and main ideas, and the implications and conclusions.

The form of the book could be described as emergent, roughly following the laws of emergence as Johnson defines it: "more is different, ignorance is useful, encourage random encounters, look for patterns in signs and pay attention to your neighbors" (back cover). Although it has a clear chapter structure, the chapters are used not so much to organize arguments chronologically, but rather to structure the different aspects of the phenomenon of emergence. And the chosen phenomena do not appear only once, but over and over again. The different examples of the analysis surface in almost every chapter, though each time to make a different point or to describe in more detail and from another angle the dynamics of emergence. This can become tedious, as it sometimes looks as if he doesn't trust his own arguments and its powers, but such a form also creates interesting dynamics, in which the idea of emergence spirals up and feeds itself constantly. Each chapter thus becomes its own little step in the evolution of the general line of argument.

The introduction sets the agenda and provides a pretty good overview of what will follow. In a brief cultural history of the scientific ideas about self-organization of the past 200 years, he assembles an illustrious group of thinkers that have been contributing to the science of self-organization, but were not aware of it, as the science as such did not exist at their times. Among others, Adam Smith, Friedrich Engels, Charles Darwin and Alan Turing are named and made witness to his arguments (18ff). What connects these scholars and others are certain patterns they were encountering when researching, be it the economy, birds and evolution, the system of capitalism or the structures of numbers and hence codes. And so this book is essentially a book about patterns in various contexts that share some similarities and dynamics. To compare slime mold with software and eventually city streets serves Johnson's idea to show that the laws of emergence hold true at any scale of collectivity (21). According to Johnson, patterns and shapes have served as ways to explain different phenomena over time that were thought to contain some form of general truth about how the world is organized, or what can be seen as the driving force of being and evolution. For Johnson, the shape of slime mold symbolizes the future of social evolution in the coming decades.

The first chapter steps right into the subject, starting out with a description of anthills and their social organization as such. The most interesting point for Johnson in this context is that no matter how big and complex the construction of such an anthill, there is no central planner that designed the whole place; "it just sort of happened" (32). From the ant colonies, which he compares with living cities, he comes consequentially to the design of cities themselves and to one in particular, Manchester. In describing the city's cultural history, he comes to discuss the problem of complexity and its management in urban spaces (38). In the case of Manchester, Johnson argues that its development to the forefront of the industrial revolution, with all the dirt and poverty that came with it, wasn't planned, but emerged from itself like a living organism. Sticking to his ideas and taking a random encounter with Manchester, he quite freely and somewhat unconnectedly moves from urban dwelling and Friedrich Engels to another of Manchester's immigrants, the mathematician Alan Turing and his ideas of morphogenesis -- the beginning of shape -- which have less to do with cities and more with numbers and their (self-) organization of complexity (42). This theme can be seen as the central one in this chapter, covering a wide range of examples from DNA analysis to evolution and Richard Dawkin's "Selfish Gene," from social theory on urban space to Norbert Wiener's electronic brain and cybernetics and finally to Mitch Resnick's slime mold simulation. Johnson uses every chance to make the reader aware of the phenomenon of complexity and its possible self-organization. Johnson wants us to think from the bottom up and put aside thoughts about a master plan and its pacemakers behind the evolution(s) and developments, whether technological, biological or social -- or all three in one.

Chapter two concentrates on something he calls "swarm logic." He again starts off with ants -- the mascots of this book -- to make a point for the importance of neighbors and neighborhoods to establish a persistence of the whole over time, not relying on the being of individual members, but on its very own structure and patterns to evolve and develop (82). Along the way he uses examples from the economy, shows why the game SimCity can be conceptualized as a system of emergence and how segregation in US cities is more a self-organizing process than an actually planned strategy by any given local government. Johnson traces the importance for any emergent structure back to the sidewalks (a term borrowed from the much cited Jane Jacobs' analysis of urban structures and dynamics), the places where people meet and encounter, exchange and behave, rather than on individuals themselves. Johnson acknowledges the problem of making analogies from relatively stupid ants to self-reflecting human beings who have a free will and are able to make decisions not based on simple exchanges of pheromone, the chemical substance with which ants are communicating (97). But there is nevertheless a way to compare these two and other phenomena on the basis of what he calls "emergent intelligence." However, it is impossible for us to perceive our contribution to it in our daily lives. We can only access this through patterns, learning, and feedback. The reduced look on patterns and structures will be one of the points why his argument is eventually weak and why some of the comparisons he makes, especially those of cities and ants, are incomplete and do not work in a larger context, one which he rarely touches: power and political processes.

According to Johnson, cities are "more an imprint of collective behavior than the work of master planners. They are the sum of thousands of local interactions: clustering, sharing, crowding, trading - all the disparate activities that coalesce into the totality of urban living" (109). With examples ranging from twelfth century Florence to modern day Manhattan, he describes how patterns, such as trading zones or industrial neighborhoods, evolve. Individuals pay attention to their neighbors and cluster on grounds of similarity and interest, like the silk weavers of Florence, or the knitting industry in the garment districts in New York (most of chapter three). Cities in this sense are an interface to organize the sheer complexity and quantity present. The self-organizing clusters of neighborhood also serve to make cities more intelligible to the individuals who inhabit them (109). To Johnson, the importance of these patterns lies in the unconsciousness of and the process itself. The process that helps to evolve these patterns is run by feedback loops -- positive and negative -- with which self-organizing systems are "bootstrapping" themselves into existence (112).

Feedback represents the central steering mechanism of emergence and is explained in full detail in chapter four. From Bill Clinton's affair with Gennifer Flowers to Norbert Wiener's cybernetics (in which he, in 1949, already thought about the relationship between control and feedback), Johnson sees feedback loops at the center of emergent systems to make themselves more adaptive (139). Turning to virtual communities like the WELL and ECHO, he transfers his observations and analysis to more social areas, attempting to show how feedback also works in these environments to regulate behavior and the very structure of the communities themselves (147ff). While these communities are only bottom-up to a certain degree, as their topics were often centrally established and the system hierarchically manages, Slashdot.org provides the example for a genuinely self-organizing community on the Web. Through its system of rating and and filtering, the user is permanently giving feedback and adjusting the system with his or her action. Although seeing the limits and inherent dangers of the rating system according to minority opinions, Johnson clearly favors this kind of system as one in which a centrist community as well as a multiculturalist, diverse community and their respective views can coexist side by side and thus pave a way forward to new social and political thinking on and off the Net (162). Unfortunately, he does not tell us how and why.

An important point here is the following question: if these decentralized systems are simply out of control, or if emergence has to abide to rules, can there be any kind of control? Indeed, according to Johnson, there can be. Control is needed to make it work properly (chapter 5). Emergent systems work best on the edges of control and free will, as shown with the example of Mitch Resnick's slime mold simulations, where the computer simulation runs along certain parameters, but not towards a planned end (189). With this, Johnson has fully introduced the laws and dynamics of emergence and its limits, and it becomes clear where his genius lies -- in making visible connections between technology and social issues.

The remaining two chapters of the book are then used to set the processes of emergence in connection with the wider world and taking a look into the future as to where this could lead society and technology. Chapter six explores some of these issues, the most important that of personalization and filtering (eg. in online commercial activities, such as Amazon.com, or other services, such as news, video or TV). Johnson argues that these future filtering tools will be much more powerful than the present ones, as they are the outcome of a million brains and their mind reading skills, made possible through better and more intelligent software and computers. Although he sees any self-aware computer as a thing of a distant future, Johnson believes that "our computers and television sets and refrigerators won't be thinking themselves, but they will have pretty good idea what we're thinking about" (208). The mind reading skills, as he calls them, emerge because our patterns of behavior will be exposed to the shared public space of the Web (221). It is the network that is smart with the intelligence of an ant colony -- collaborative and collective -- and not that of a centralized state (232). The image of the global, the colony, or the giant brain and its global intelligence surface at this point and underlines the idea of the interlinking of individual thought and intelligence through the Web and other media (114ff, 181).

Although centralism seems to be a rather important part of his argument and is made the antidote of emergent system, he barely speaks about political centralism, self-organization and decentralized networks of economies, and social and political issues. His only example is the global protest movement that rose or emerged as a new phenomenon in Seattle in 1999. In this, he detects the distributed organizational form and the intelligence of a swarm, which cannot be easily battled against, unless one is a distributed network oneself (225f). In this regard, the movement mirrors the organic, interlinked pathways of the Internet (226). At this point, the chance to further explore the political implications of self-organization is available, but not followed. It rather seems as if the Seattle movement was only taken for its structure and its hipness among the young digiterati crowd, and not for any further analysis. In this, the weaknesses of his approach become most obvious. While he has a fine feeling for the similarities and inter-connectedness of various phenomena and their cultural history, he is almost blind to questions of power and sociopolitical thinking.

It is surprising that he does not mention Manuel Castells, who indeed tried to develop a theory of networks and their impact on power structures on a economic, social, and political level. While Castells does not explain the details of the networks structure and the evolving patterns, he clearly sees the underlying power structures and the limits and true political implications of such networks for our society, alas on a different scale. Emergence could be a valuable addition to that theory as it shows the inner logic of networks and their functioning and vice versa for the above reasons.

Throughout the book, Johnson sticks to some big names and a few phenomena: cities, artificial intelligence, the world of biological behavioral sciences. He develops a technological determined approach of self-organization and decentralized networks, without paying much attention to historical theories, such as those developed by 19th century anarchist theorists like Max Stirner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, or Michail Bakunin. Nor does he examine models of society, which work along self-organizing, decentralized structures and which are described in anthropological literature throughout the 20th century, eg. in the writings of many social-anthropologist from the 1930 up to today, especially the school of British anthropologist from the early 1930s around and in succession of R. A. Radcliffe-Brown, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and the South African Meyer Fortes.

His analysis of cities and the culture of sidewalks, as intriguing as it is, neglects the power of political structures that stand behind city planning and the segregation, privatization, and commercialization of urban space throughout history. Current processes that bring together decentralized computer technology, urban segregation, and ideologies of fear and surveillance may also work with dynamics of emergence, with outcomes that might be most unfavorable to large groups of people, eg. immigrants, ethnic and social minorities. Without a discussion of the social implications and power structures behind some of these emerging processes, the patterns themselves remain empty and only descriptive. Although he brings forth an excellent analysis of the patterns, feedbacks, and self-organizing structures themselves, he does not put them into a larger socio-political and economical context, something he seems to claim throughout his book.

The arrangement of his examples, brought together according to the laws of emergence, "encourage random encounters" through which he tries to connect the different spheres and areas where he finds the patterns and structures of emergence, often remain on the surface. His focus on patterns and structures provides the strongest ideas and shows his imaginary and innovative approach. However, ants are not real people and cities and political processes often far more complicated than described by Johnson. Therefore, it almost looks as if he shies away from such a discussion and stops short of these issues if they arise in the text. The text itself is a powerful read on patterns and structures that most likely will or already have an immense impact on our social and political lives. But it does not satisfactorily explain the very sociopolitical impact he promised at the beginning and throughout his book. It raises important questions, which he neither provides answers to, nor attempts a deeper discussion in the field of social theory and the consequences of, for instance, filtering or systems of artificial intelligence in modern global and networked societies. Indeed, he sees these structures and the underlying and driving mechanisms and dynamics, but does not conceptualize beyond this. Other than that, it is worth reading for its style, the information presented, and the questions raised, elements that can and should be discussed in more depth following his book.

Nils Zurawski:
Nils Zurawski is a social-anthropologist and part time lecturer for sociology at the Universities of Hamburg and Münster, both in Germany. His research interests include, ethnicity, violence, the Northern Irish conflict, Cyberspace and the Internet, surveillance, and popular culture. At the moment he prepares a project on surveillance, identity, and cognitive mapping. To make a living he currently works as a news editor for a public broadcasting company in Hamburg/Germany. 

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