Steven Johnson's Emergence: The


Steven Johnson's Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software is a good read about self-organizing systems. I'm about halfway through. Swarm intelligence -- it works for organizing cities, ant colonies, and perhaps the net.

    Histories of intellectual development--the origin and spread of new ideas--usually come in two types of pacakages: either the "great man" theory, where a single genius has a eureka moment in the lab or the lbirary and the world is immediately transformed; or the "paradigm shift" theory, where the occupants of the halls of science awake to find an entirely new floor has been built on top of them, and within a few years, everyone is working out of the new offices. Both theories are inadequate: the great man theory ignores the distributed, communal effort that goes into any important intellectual advance, and the paradign-shift model has a hard time explaining how the new floor actually gets built.

    Generations of ants come and go, and yet the colony itself matures, grows more stable, more organized. The mind naturally boggles at this mix of permanence and instability.

    The relationship between body cells is indeed very much like that between bees in a hive. The ancestors of your cells were once individual entities, and their evolutionary 'decision' to cooperate, some six hundred million years ago, is almost exactly equivalent ot the same decision, taken perhpas fifty million years ago by the social inserts, to cooperate on the level of the body.

    The human body is made up of several hundred different types of cells--muscle, blood, nervous, and so on. At any given time, approximately 75 trillion of these cells are working away in your body. In a very real sense, you are the sum of their actions; there is no you without them. And yet those cells are dying all the time! Thousands probably died in the time it took you to read the last sentence, and by next week, you will be composed of billions of new cells that weren't there to enjoy the reading of that sentence, much less enjoy your first step or your high school prom.

    Cities, like any colonies, possess a kind of emergent intelligence: an ability to store and retrieve information, to recognize and respond to patterns in human behavior. We contribute to that emergent intelligence, but it is almost impossible for us to perceive that contribution, because our lives unfold on the wrong scale.

    The body learns without consciousness, and so do cities, because learning is not just about being aware of information; it's also about storing information and knowing where to find it.

    As the futurist Ray Kurzweil writes, "Jumans are far more skilled at recognizing patterns than in thinking through logical combinations, so we rely on this aptitude for almost all of our mental processes. Indeed, pattern recognition comprises the bulk of our neural circuitry. These faculties make up for the extremely slow speed of human neurons." The human mind is poorly equipped to deal with problems that need to be solve serially--one calculation after another--given that neurons require a "reset time" of about five milliseconds, meaning that neaurons are capable of only two hundred calculations per second. Unlike most computers, the brain is a massively parallel system (whew!), with 100 billion neurons all working away at the same time. ... Kurzweil: "We don't have time...to think too many new thoughts when we are pressed to make a decision. The human brain relies on precomputing its analyses and storing them for future reference. We then use our pattern-recognition capability to recognize a situation as compatible to one we have thought about and then draw upon our previously considered conclusions." Where, one wonders, are the metatags for these precomputed knowledge objects?

This is a book to get you thinking about systems that organize themselves. The Invisible Hand. The Invisible Foot. At times, I lost Johnson's train of thought. The hand needed to be more visible. I think this is because the book is a pastiche of previous articles that didn't stich together seamlessly.



Paris to the Moon is on the bedstead. Last night I read about the author's fax machine, a model manufactured by the French government. A readout informs the user of what's going on. Erreur distante, distant error, often comes up, even when the problem is local, for instance running out of paper. This is much the same with French orators who rail against the Etats-Unis. Erreur distante = not my fault. A charming book.



The ABC's of the bauhaus and design theory is a collection of essays about kindergarten, gestalt pattern recognition, universal form, childhood art, grids, the Weimar republic, and more, shaped by Gropius, Kandinsky, Albers, Klee, and others. I'm familiar with some of this material but never found it all in one place before. The Bauhaus looked to primitive and children's art in the same way philosophers sift through writings of the ancient Greeks, looking for the pure, unvarnished, basic truth and simplicity.

    I've perused other books on the Bauhaus since reading this booklet and visited the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin. Now I recognize that the book is not so much a summary as a narrow slice of the whole.

Posted by Jay Cross at September 24, 2001 11:09 AM | TrackBack
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nice site

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