Everything Flows Essay, Research Paper
Everything flows Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software Steven Johnson 288pp, Penguin Harvester ants aren’t particularly bright. Yet colonies of these creatures gather food, fight off enemies, deposit rubbish and fallen comrades in neat heaps outside their nests, and generally pull off some of the most amazing feats of engineering in the animal kingdom. How do colonies achieve all this when the brains of their members are so limited? It is tempting to think that the queen understands the master plan and in some way coordinates her minions, but in reality she’s just as thick as they are. No one, it seems, is pulling the colony’s strings, so how does it manage to function as a whole? The answer may lie in self-organisation, a phenomenon explored by Steven Johnson in his mind-expanding Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. In its most basic form, a self-organising system comprises many simple elements whose individual behaviours are determined by local conditions. A worker ant may stumble across a colleague’s pheromone trail communicating the message “out foraging”. If such trails are dense on the ground, the encountering ant may stop collecting food and begin taking out the trash instead. Alternatively, if the frequency of “out foraging” messages is low, the ant may respond by striking out along a trail that says, by smell, “food over here”, and begin collecting again. Provided individuals stick to their respective rules, seemingly intelligent behaviour by the colony as a whole can emerge without any ant being the wiser. This type of self-organisation is now recognised in many systems composed of numerous elements or modules capable of performing relatively simple behaviours in response to local stimuli. “Bottom-up” forces probably play a crucial role in shaping the nature of cities, leading to the creation of suburbs, slums, business centres and other unplanned demographic clusters. No one decreed that Savile Row should house London’s finest tailors, for example; the character of the street emerged as a result of decisions taken by individual businesses about such things as profile, supply lines and customer bases. Similarly, the silk weavers of Florence began to congregate unbidden on the Por Santa Maria in the 11th century and are still plying their trade there today, despite the coming and going of wars, plagues, fires and massive social upheavals. Cities seem to have emergent lives of their own, governed by the usually unwitting actions of their inhabitants over many generations. We are the ants, in other words, and cities are our colonies. Warming to his metropolitan theme, Johnson then asks a seemingly ludicrous question: can cities learn? Learning is usually associated with conscious beings, but then an immune system “learns” throughout its owner’s lifetime, adapting and manufacturing antibodies to counter the threat of invading pathogens. This type of learning seems to revolve around information-storage and a certain responsiveness to change, so there may indeed be a sense – albeit rather a narrow one – in which cities too can be said to learn. If you think this is esoteric stuff, read on. “If cities can generate emergent intelligence, a macro-behavior spawned by a million micromotives,” Johnson muses, “what higher-level form is currently taking shape among the routers and fiber-optic lines of the internet?” Might the world wide web become a “global brain”? Will emergent intelligence, or even self-awareness, arise unbidden in cyberspace? Controlling the net is hard enough at present, but what if it starts getting ideas of its own? If, like me, you feel an overwhelming urge to head for the nearest unplugged island when cybergeeks start banging on about our technological future, this is an occasion to resist. Johnson’s speculations about life on the internet, machine intelligence, computer programs that evolve on their own, feedback loops in modern media networks and so on are intelligent, witty and tremendously thought-provoking. And his conclusions will probably surprise you. Emergence is a fascinating book, full of surprises and insights, and written in an easy, engaging style. However, you may have to read it more than once to appreciate its subtleties. The significance of emergent behaviour is made admirably clear in the case of insects, slime moulds and even cities, but grasping its relevance to the Gennifer Flowers affair and the operation of internet chatrooms is a bit more challenging. The connections are there, but Johnson is rather sparing with the signposts. He also tends to place them less than helpfully towards the end of chapters, requiring the reader, finally enlightened, to go back and reconsider all the earlier spadework. Still, popular-science books interesting enough to read twice don’t come along all that often. · Chris Lavers is the author of Why Elephants Have Big Ears (Phoenix).