Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

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* Book: Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Touchstone, 2002.



Chris Leslie:

"In his study Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, media theorist Steven Johnson argues that emergence is the essential paradigm for our age. Johnson writes: “Just like the clock maker metaphors of the Enlightenment, or the dialectical logic of the nineteenth century, the emergent worldview belongs to our moment in time, shaping our habits and coloring our perception of the world” (66). Emergence is an alternative way of understanding complex systems. A hierarchical, top-down system attempts to use a centralized decision-making process based on abstract rules to guide behavior. The emergent position looks at complex systems differently: a small number of rules that are processed by individual units are the best method of explaining the aggregate behavior. While a statistical analysis of an emergent system will lead to abstract mathematical laws, these laws do not explain why individual units behave the way they do.

Johnson notes that the principle of emergence operates in the natural world but is not obvious when one looks at systems from the outside. He begins his study with a description of ants for this reason: the “myth of the ant queen” invites us to draw an analogy to human organizations where centralized authority is seen to direct the behavior of individuals (hence the totalitarian threat of Star Trek’s Borg Queen and Princess Bala’s fight for individuality in Antz). The skillful, monarch-like insect in her apartment deploying the necessary number of drones to provide for the colony’s supply, defense, and reproduction is an appealing stage from which moviegoers can achieve a cathartic sense of freedom. Yet, Johnson writes, this analogy is false; the ant queen does not direct an army of drones. Drones take direction from a small set of simple signals released by other drones. A drone collecting food leaves behind a special scent, and other drones that pick up that scent will follow the path to the food source. The most direct path to the food becomes the most successful and so pragmatic behavior helps drones to “determine” the best path to take. No one drone knows where the food is or has a map of the terrain, nor does the queen: the emergent system is smarter than the individual members of the colony and acts as an effective decision-making process.

While the example of the ant colony is a fascinating story of the natural world, it is the potential of such “smart” systems that interests Johnson. After this skillful survey of emergence in the natural world, Johnson explains how human systems such as cities are affected by emergence. He adroitly overviews the relevant sources in communication theory, computer science, biology, psychology, and urban studies, making his book a worthwhile survey and a springboard for further study. Johnson then turns to an examination of the implications of emergence for new media, and in part three he explicitly demonstrates how the principles of emergence can be used to improve existing systems and to survive the onslaught of information that is likely on the horizon."