Magazine article The Spectator

The Ant-Hill and the Internet

Magazine article The Spectator

The Ant-Hill and the Internet

Article excerpt

EMERGENCE

by Steven Johnson

Allen Lane, Penguin, 14.99, pp. 288, ISBN 0713994002 + 2 = 5. At least it does in natural and artificial systems which can adapt to their environment. The most familiar such system is the market, adjusting as it does to constant changes in the external parameters with their sources of new supply and demand. But similar complex adaptation is going on all around and indeed inside us, from the collective households of the lowly social insects, to the spontaneous patterns of the streets and boroughs of cities, to the homeostasis of our digestive tracts. And as in the market, so in the ant-hill. Except in children's cartoons, ant, bee and wasp colonies do not have a Stalinist organisational architecture. The pattern of their highly adaptive group behaviour and structure arises out of the intrinsically simple operations of all their constituents - the pattern emerges.

The fact of emergent properties explains why the world is not even more chaotic than it is. As Steven Johnson vividly illustrates in Emergence, this realisation has already become central to our science, is rapidly appropriating our technology and looks set to overflow into our culture and politics.

Johnson sees the study of emergence as evolving through three stages. In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists in specific areas, such as Adam Smith, of course, and his French precursors in economics, but also, less familiarly, Engels in the study of urban development, began to proclaim and articulate emergent explanations. By the middle of the 20th century the centrality of emergent features as the hallmark of the 'higher' sciences had been recognised, and emergent/complexity studies 'emerged' in university departments and independent centres, conspicuously Santa Fe.

The final, and most exciting, phase which is now beginning will see the launch of emergence-based approaches to technology. This is really Johnson's home territory, since he edits a web magazine, and he cites many provocative examples. My favourite is that three major telecommunications groups are now using artificial-life technology based on ants to solve the `travelling salesman' problem, which is of crucial importance for maximising the efficiency of their networks.

The most intriguing question of all is what form will be taken by a putative fourth phase in which emergence will flower in the media and politics. …

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