Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Book review

"Emergence - The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software"  by Steven Johnson (c) 2001

I've always been fascinated by the concept of connections and the way disparate fields of science, philosophy, religion and engineer often arrive at conclusions that are eerily similar to each other. It all feeds into a feeling I have had for as long as I can remember that much of the complexity of life is drive at a more fundamental level by the simplest of rules and that those rules apply in many fields of discipline, even ones that don't, on the surface appear to be connected.

I just started reading Emergence this past weekend and have only finished the first part of the book, but it provides yet another data point that feeds into this hypothesis. Steven Johnson outlines the new field of emergent systems, the theory that complex, adaptive behavior can "emerge" from simple systems without the need for internal controllers (or "pacemakers" as Johnson calls them).

Just in reading the first chapter a few thoughts emerge (heh) from my own mind:

  • The Queen in an ant colony is no more "in charge" of the colony or directs its behavior than is the lowliest worker. In fact, the Queen is just another worker, in this case a worker who carries out the specialized role of laying eggs.
  • Complex patterns of behavior can emerge from seemingly unorganized systems that can be incorrectly interpreted as resulting from consciously directed action and that this could explain the belief of many that there are nefarious and dark forces at work in the world (i.e., conspiracy theories).
  • The science of emergent systems does not deny the existence of a controlling force, it only says that it is not necessary for that controlling force (or forces) to be located within a complex organizational system. Those systems evolve in response to rules and external influences. Someone has to define the rules and someone has to create those external conditions.
  • Yet, make no mistake that those external controllers are themselves members of a much larger complex system and are thus subject to their own rules of emergent behavior. Control is an illusion, but it is a useful illusion.
  • George W. Bush and the cabal he represents only think they are controlling the apparatus of society when, like the Queen, they are just another specialized worker in the human colony. They are no more free than is the Queen.
  • Al Gore is apparently a devotee if the field of emergent systems and it had a strong influence on his "re-inventing government" efforts and may also explain why he became enamored of the Dean campaign (probably the purest example of a bottom-up organized political campaign since the start of the TV age).

I believe in free will. But I don't believe that we are entirely in control of our own destinies either. It has long been my belief that it is those who advocate for the extremes in this debate both have it wrong. The universe is neither fundamentally ordered or chaotic.

It is much to beautiful to be hemmed in by such limited notions.


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