By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Capitalists needed Darwin to explain how something apparently so cruel could be good for us. Communists needed Marx to explain why something so ineffectual would triumph in the end anyway. When systems reveal their weaknesses, we try to find a theoretical justification to help us maintain our faith through the hard times. So what Steven Johnson, the founder of Feed magazine and Plastic.com, is trying to do in Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software is timely. Just as the New Economy appears to be heading into its first prolonged period of self-doubt, it has found a philosopher, as well as a bullish prognosticator. His goal is to buck up our faith in Internet culture. To do that he has to domesticate it, humanize it, tie it to ideas and experiences we already have.
“Is the Web learning as well?” he asks at one point in the book. A quick take on the Zeitgeist would suggest that we mostly hope not. We like to tell computers what to do rather than to be told. We want them to have a toehold but not a neckhold. Yet how can one resist in the abstract the idea that the Web could be our meta-consciousness -- in Johnson’s term, our “global brain”? Who would not want the power of all our minds united? How churlish. Yet the dot-com bust suggests our independent selves are not to be overruled so easily.
Maybe we‘ve already voted, then. Intuiting our resistance, Johnson takes an oblique approach to convincing us of the necessity of living controlled by lifeless, bleeping machines. He declares his book to be about something more general: “self-emergent systems,” those that organize themselves without any central authority directing them. “They solve problems by drawing on masses of relatively stupid elements, rather than a single, intelligent ’executive branch.‘” Examples are ant colonies, city neighborhoods and the computer game SimCity. In all these activities, semi-self-aware groupthink creates better results than either a top-down management system or pure chance.
The most promising example of the power of “relatively stupid elements” comes from mathematics. In the late ’90s, a programmer named Daniel Hillis wanted to use a supercomputer to solve the puzzle of how you sort 100 numbers in the fewest steps. Deciding to let the computer figure it out itself, he instructed it to write thousands of programs and let them compete with each other. He extracted the best algorithms from the more successful ones until he‘d gotten a program better than he could come up with -- it got the algorithm down to 62 steps. “I have carefully examined their instruction sequences, but I do not understand them,” Hillis wrote afterward in his 1998 book, The Pattern on the Stone. “I have no simpler explanation of how the programs work than the instruction sequences themselves. It may be that the programs are not understandable.” Something primitive made something brilliant.
Ant colonies also display emergent adaptive behavior, and they make for the best reading in the book. Johnson dismisses what he calls “the Stalinist ant stereotypes . . . In fact, colonies are the exact opposite of command economies.” I had my doubts -- I’d seen Antz -- but he is persuasive. There is no Stalin in an ant colony. There is no queen, really. It‘s a misnomer. No ant tells another ant what to do. They decide their behavior by sensing other ants’ behavior through their pheromone trails. Do I forage or nest-build? Do I go on guard duty? It depends on what the others in the colony are doing. Collectively, the ants‘ decision making is a tool as powerful as Hillis’ supercomputer.
Johnson adds a bunch of other self-emergent systems to his argument -- slime mold, the goldsmiths of medieval Florence and game-video artists. He gives a nod to the decentralized management technique of some business gurus and the protest groups at meetings on global trade who work without central leadership. And, since a paradigm shift such as emergence needs an intellectual parentage, too, Johnson traces the “emergence of emergence” theory to early studies of city life. His pagan poet, his Virgil, is Friedrich Engels, who wrote a study of working-class Manchester in the 1840s. Engels kept believing that a conspiracy of the powerful, “an unconscious, tacit agreement,” determined that the rich and poor were segregated. Yet he also guessed that this analysis was too simple.
According to Johnson, what was really happening was thousands of local decisions: People like to be near the people they work with; they like to be near the shops that have what they need, etc. Together, they make a neighborhood. Engels couldn‘t see the emergent system for the conspiracy theory he preferred. Johnson contrasts him with Jane Jacobs, who in The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, her 1961 book about, in part, New York’s West Village, proposed that “Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties.” She was the first to see the light.
Emergent systems are “revolutionary” -- Johnson says it several times. But to me, the idea seems more evolutionary, in both senses. Emergence emerges as an interesting subclass (to use another of his terms) of Darwin‘s theory of natural selection. It shifts the emphasis from self-interest to something more inclusive: evolution as an act of parallel decision making. Us, not me. It rearranges the gears a bit, but it doesn’t change the central paradigm of the world as a machine that goes on its own. And if the world is a watch, we still need to know the watchmaker. Hillis even had to step in and choose which programs to cross-breed (not to mention that a traditional programmer once solved the problem in fewer steps).
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