Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by Steven Johnson

This book covers the theory of emergence, which states that within a system of what seems to be anarchy, there are underlying rules that govern the pattern of behaviour and bring order out of chaos.

This books serves as an introduction to the field of emergence. It is something that is already happening around us, but we usually cannot see. The reason for this is that you need to look at a higher level than the individual organism. Ants can not see the society as a whole that they are members of. Just as we humans may have an understanding of the local community we are in and of ourselves, we need to step outside (or above) the city to understand how it functions. A city, like an ant colony does not have rules from the top as such, but rules that each occupant obeys, and it is these rules that give order to the chaos and make the resultant community behave like an organism as a whole.

I really wanted to like this book. But the level of information within it will make me put in into the light, popular fiction section of my bookshelf. One of the aspects of the book that really wanted me to give a good review is that the author makes a good introduction to the theory behind the comments system of Slashdot, the way people are chosen to rate comments and how good comments filter to the top. As such, I would have liked a review of the editorial process on Kuro5hin as well, since the two systems are fairly similar. In fact, I think the Kuro5hin system is better, because long time readers will see that the stories have moved away from an open source/linux focus to more cultural aspects, thus reflecting the change and growth of the community. But the idea of a Daily Me portal, that serves information that would suit us is explored heavily.

As I read the book though, an uneasiness came upon me, just as I do when reading books on neo-Darwinism. There is no mention of where these rules as such come from except through evolutionary survival or initial chance. If anything, the author implies that we are in a universe that had the initial conditions set, and left running. So we’d evolve or grow into who or what we are.

The idea that a God figure could be there, tweaking the parameters as the model runs, or even setting the initial conditions works against his ideas. This view is however explored in the chapter Control Artist, where the author comments on the development of software models, notably computer games. Games such as SimCity are discussed where the rules are set, but as a player we get to choose what gets built, what gets destroyed. Although here we are playing the Mayor of the City, the notion is the same; we control the macro level and not the micro level. But at the micro level, the software developer who built the game in the first place controls each inhabitant. Nothing really, is left to chance. Given the exact same initial conditions and same set of instructions the computer will create the same environment.

So, like most popular science books currently available it will educate you, entertain you and keep you occupied while reading it or totally bore you. But it is not a book of philosophy to base life on, which thankfully, the author has not tried to provide. It is very well researched, and the author seems on top of current trends and ideas. His writing style jumps around quite a bit, and some of the connections between topics might seem a little far fetched but it is an entertaining read as an introduction to the field of emergence theory.

Pet peeve 1: Notes. The notes section at the end is fairly extensive. But there are no foot notes in the book. The notes are indexed by page and quote. So as a reader you have to constantly check the notes section to see if there is a note or reference for the page you are reading.

Pet peeve 2: There was (for me) a glaring technical error on page 120.

Ironically, it is precisely this feedback that the Web lacks, because HTML-based links are one-directional. You can point to ten other sites from your home page, but there’s no way for those pages to know that you’re pointing to them, short of you taking the time to fire off an e-mail to their respective webmasters.

You can see who is visiting your site, unless they are using an anonymizer proxy, or other system to hide their headers. The HTTP-REFERER header gives you exactly this information.

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