"Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software" by Steven Johnson -review by Emil Memon


Emergence has one initial premise that is being proposed with different examples throughout the book. Its single mindedness is its driving force. The idea of "self organization" and a "bottom-up" principle of simple systems that can organize themselves without any central galvanizer into higher evolved complex systems is being presented as an axiom. judging by its author's enthusiasm, it has replaced previous belief systems (like political ideologies or religions).

With the enthusiasm of a first love, his erudition and talent as a writer, the author of this book is on a mission to prove it anyway he can. This idea of self organization is nothing new and is self understood (and generally used in conjunction with others as a standard staple of discourse), but in this book it is elevated into one of those "all -explaining principles" that as he claims, replaces philosophy of "post-structuralism", and claims that from the struggle to interpret the world it started to change it. we are being walked through the history of science, urbanism, pop culture, arts, social sciences, and politics where everything merges in the new technologies -- charged with esotericism where the idea of self organization that fathered them will bring us into a higher state of being.

In describing the evolution of urban spaces like Manchester (great britain) he uses the analogy of slime mold (dictyostelium discoideum) Which lives as thousands of distinct single-celled units, and will in the right condition coalesce into a single larger organism to survive adverse conditions; or the manner in which ants interact without a central command, but "atomized" and "decentralized", they form a highly organized and successful community. "Bright shop windows attract more bright shop windows and drive the impoverished toward the hidden core. There's no need for Baron Haussmann in this world, just a few repeating patterns of movement, amplified into larger shapes that last for lifetimes: clusters, slums, neighborhoods" exhorts steven johnson. the human communities organize themselves like the slime releasing compound AMB or the individual ants that organize themselves "bottom up" by secreting chemical compounds. It is interesting that in the description of 19th century Manchester he mentioned the writings by Friedrich Engels, but in this removed and mechanistic premise of the book, he failed to mention that there is more to the human condition (such as division of labor, division between have and have not, and that peoples' struggles and desires may have something to do with the way they organize themselves or are being forced to do it).

The liberating idea of self organization, "the web of human connections without center" does have progressive connotations as it emerged from the anti-globalization movement in Seattle, but it does not fit into the biochemical/ mathematical/ deterministic premises of this book even if the author was trying to make this connection. But in the light of Sept.11 tragedy where the terrorists are supposedly atomized into self organized cells and occasionally act "bottom up"-- this model based on slime dissent seems appalling.

When writing about "web culture" (the crux of the book), the example of "Slashdot" as the net community in its best form, left me a little bit perplexed. The entire story of creation of "slashdot elite" or delegation of "Spam warriors" (and the little college in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of frat boys) is mildly amusing, but the actual result when you log on and you look at the site is disappointing. When discussing "art on the web", the writer reveals his lack of knowledge: yes, interactive computer games are important; and yes, a lot of artists are using the tools of computer games-- but that is not the only art activity in the so-called "new media".

There are parts of the book that are enjoyable, especially the description of Alan Turing (the scholar of mathematical patterns, and breaker of the nazi code and the Enigma device) and the rest of the history of invention of computers and "AI" with all different sciences that took part in this extraordinary human Journey. Emergence is a very readable book even if you do not agree with its premise, but it does make you think abut complex interactions of the natural and artificial worlds and the sublime Mary Shelley and her "Frankenstein".

#copyright emil memon 2001 emilmemon@yahoo.com