2011/08/16

Book Review: Emergence by Steven Johnson

Emergence by Steven Johnson book cover
Both my experience reading this book and my experience writing this review were quite interesting. I loved both Where Good Ideas Come From and The Invention of Air, also by Steven Johnson, and read each in a short period of time. I expected the same from this book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.

'Twas not to be, however. I read about halfway through the book, got fed up, and left it for a few weeks before finishing it. It took me a couple weeks to start writing the book review. I wrote most of one, then threw it out. Now, several weeks later, I am starting over.

I threw out the previous review because I felt that I was not being fair to the book, and that I did not have a full grasp of the reasons why I was dissatisfied with the book (perhaps these are, at root, the same thing). For one thing, this book is ten years old and is about a fairly contemporary idea, whereas the other two books are more recent and about material that ages better. Many of the references are out of date and the futuristic predictions seem sillier now than they did then (TiVo is no longer a major player and YouTube, which didn't exist in 2001, is huge). In fact, I was often reminded of the feeling I got when reading The Anti-Capitalism Reader, also from 2001: a certain sense of déjà vu - not exactly nostalgia, but a feeling of being transported to a previous time in my life. It's funny, because I don't think of the 90s or the 00s of having a "feel" the way the 80s or the 70s or the 60s do. The last two decades were far blander than the others, but they do each have a certain sentiment that I find hard to articulate.

A more fundamental unfairness in my initial evaluation of Emergence comes from its very success. When the book was written, the concept of emergence was fairly new, and was not as well-known to the general public as it is now. This book helped popularize the topic, so that now I'm in a position to criticize it for not having enough depth.

The Stumbling Block

The part of the book that really tripped me up was the stretch of text about Slashdot in the chapter "Listening to Feedback". I was an avid reader of Slashdot in 1999 and 2000, and while their rating system was good and enabled some user discretion in filtering, I didn't and don't think of it as a revolutionary new idea, perhaps because I've been so used to it. Johnson actually goes on and on for pages about Slashdot's amazing system of amazingness for letting users rate other users' comments and how it's an amazing example of bottom-up, emergent behaviour and how amazing it is. I rolled my eyes for a few pages and then put the book down in frustration.

As a friend pointed out, Slashdot's system was (and as far as I can tell, still is) a claptrap of hackery - sure, you'll get 5 points for that, a point for doing this other thing. It kind of hangs together and "works" in its own way. But it's no new wonder of the world.

This section was bad enough to give me pause, and now, after quite a bit of thought, shows me the fundamental problem with the book - and perhaps with the field. What exactly counts as emergence? I think most people would agree that ants, brains, and cities count as examples of emergent systems, as are markets, ecosystems, and many forms of culture. Do multi-cellularity or eukaryotic symbiosis count? Do social movements count?

Now, does a bowling league count? If I and a friend organize a bowling league in my city or company, is that an emergent behaviour? I don't think so. It's not clear where the line is. Nevertheless, I think many of the alleged examples in this book don't count. Slashdot's rating system is not an amazing example of emergence. Cute computer programs that draw symmetric shapes are not displaying truly emergent behaviour. Neither are programs that learn to sort, or TiVo's system for suggesting TV shows. They're cool, but they fall far short of the miracle of an ant colony.

In fact, I don't agree with any software example he gives. So one fourth of the subtitle is unsupported, despite getting the bulk of the text. We might get there - but we're not there now.

Conclusion

This book did not fulfill my hope that it would directly address some issues I'm interested in: the potential of the "swarm"; the possibility of a more decentralized, freer social system; and the question of whether we are in the process of emergence into a higher-level unit - at times called "the global brain". Unfortunately, I don't think it does a good job at being an introduction to the concept of emergence, either, although it may have been useful when it was written.

Nevertheless, if you want to, you can look for it on isbn.nu.

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