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

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Simon and Schuster, Sep 10, 2002 - Computers - 288 pages
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In the tradition of Being Digital and The Tipping Point, Steven Johnson, acclaimed as a "cultural critic with a poet's heart" (The Village Voice), takes readers on an eye-opening journey through emergence theory and its applications.


Explaining why the whole is sometimes smarter than the sum of its parts, Johnson presents surprising examples of feedback, self-organization, and adaptive learning. How does a lively neighborhood evolve out of a disconnected group of shopkeepers, bartenders, and real estate developers? How does a media event take on a life of its own? How will new software programs create an intelligent World Wide Web?

In the coming years, the power of self-organization -- coupled with the connective technology of the Internet -- will usher in a revolution every bit as significant as the introduction of electricity. Provocative and engaging, Emergence puts you on the front lines of this exciting upheaval in science and thought.

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User Review  - tlockney - LibraryThing

It's been quite a while since I read this, and I should probably queue it up for a re-read. But at the time I read it, it opened my mind to a lot of ideas that I was ready for, but hadn't quite known ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - wlmckee - LibraryThing

I came across this book while browsing the stacks at my local library. Although written in 10 years ago, I found the concepts to be relevant still today. The author covered a wide range of topics from ... Read full review


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About the author (2002)

Introduction: Here Comes Everybody!

In August of 2000, a Japanese scientist named Toshiyuki Nakagaki announced that he had trained an amoebalike organism called slime mold to find the shortest route through a maze. Nakagaki had placed the mold in a small maze comprising four possible routes and planted pieces of food at two of the exits. Despite its being an incredibly primitive organism (a close relative of ordinary fungi) with no centralized brain whatsoever, the slime mold managed to plot the most efficient route to the food, stretching its body through the maze so that it connected directly to the two food sources. Without any apparent cognitive resources, the slime mold had "solved" the maze puzzle.

For such a simple organism, the slime mold has an impressive intellectual pedigree. Nakagaki''s announcement was only the latest in a long chain of investigations into the subtleties of slime mold behavior. For scientists trying to understand systems that use relatively simple components to build higher-level intelligence, the slime mold may someday be seen as the equivalent of the finches and tortoises that Darwin observed on the Galápagos Islands.

How did such a lowly organism come to play such an important scientific role? That story begins in the late sixties in New York City, with a scientist named Evelyn Fox Keller. A Harvard Ph.D. in physics, Keller had written her dissertation on molecular biology, and she had spent some time exploring the nascent field of "nonequilibrium thermodynamics," which in later years would come to be associated with complexity theory. By 1968, she was working as an associate at Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan, thinking about the application of mathematics to biological problems. Mathematics had played such a tremendous role in expanding our understanding of physics, Keller thought -- so perhaps it might also be useful for understanding living systems.

In the spring of 1968, Keller met a visiting scholar named Lee Segel, an applied mathematician who shared her interests. It was Segel who first introduced her to the bizarre conduct of the slime mold, and together they began a series of investigations that would help transform not just our understanding of biological development but also the disparate worlds of brain science, software design, and urban studies.

If you''re reading these words during the summer in a suburban or rural part of the world, chances are somewhere near you a slime mold is growing. Walk through a normally cool, damp section of a forest on a dry and sunny day, or sift through the bark mulch that lies on a garden floor, and you may find a grotesque substance coating a few inches of rotting wood. On first inspection, the reddish orange mass suggests that the neighbor''s dog has eaten something disagreeable, but if you observe the slime mold over several days -- or, even better, capture it with time-lapse photography -- you''ll discover that it moves, ever so slowly, across the soil. If the weather conditions grow wetter and cooler, you may return to the same spot and find the creature has disappeared altogether. Has it wandered off to some other part of the forest? Or somehow vanished into thin air, like a puddle of water evaporating?

As it turns out, the slime mold (Dictyostelium discoideum) has done something far more mysterious, a trick of biology that had confounded scientists for centuries, before Keller and Segel began their collaboration. The slime mold behavior was so odd, in fact, that understanding it required thinking outside the boundaries of traditional disciplines -- which may be why it took a molecular biologist with a physics Ph.D.''s instincts to unravel the slime mold''s mystery. For that is no disappearing act on the garden floor. The slime mold spends much of its life as thousands of distinct single-celled units, each moving separately from its other comrades. Under the right conditions, those myriad cells will coalesce again into a single, larger organism, which then begins its leisurely crawl across the garden floor, consuming rotting leaves and wood as it moves about. When the environment is less hospitable, the slime mold acts as a single organism; when the weather turns cooler and the mold enjoys a large food supply, "it" becomes a "they." The slime mold oscillates between being a single creature and a swarm.

While slime mold cells are relatively simple, they have attracted a disproportionate amount of attention from a number of different disciplines -- embryology, mathematics, computer science -- because they display such an intriguing example of coordinated group behavior. Anyone who has ever contemplated the great mystery of human physiology -- how do all my cells manage to work so well together? -- will find something resonant in the slime mold''s swarm. If we could only figure out how the Dictyostelium pull it off, maybe we would gain some insight on our own baffling togetherness.

"I was at Sloan-Kettering in the biomath department -- and it was a very small department," Keller says today, laughing. While the field of mathematical biology was relatively new in the late sixties, it had a fascinating, if enigmatic, precedent in a then-little-known essay written by Alan Turing, the brilliant English code-breaker from World War II who also helped invent the digital computer. One of Turing''s last published papers, before his death in 1954, had studied the riddle of "morphogenesis" -- the capacity of all life-forms to develop ever more baroque bodies out of impossibly simple beginnings. Turing''s paper had focused more on the recurring numerical patterns of flowers, but it demonstrated using mathematical tools how a complex organism could assemble itself without any master planner calling the shots.

"I was thinking about slime mold aggregation as a model for thinking about development, and I came across Turing''s paper," Keller says now, from her office at MIT. "And I thought: Bingo!"

For some time, researchers had understood that slime cells emitted a common substance called acrasin (also known as cyclic AMP), which was somehow involved in the aggregation process. But until Keller began her investigations, the conventional belief had been that slime mold swarms formed at the command of "pacemaker" cells that ordered the other cells to begin aggregating. In 1962, Harvard''s B. M. Shafer showed how the pacemakers could use cyclic AMP as a signal of sorts to rally the troops; the slime mold generals would release the compounds at the appropriate moments, triggering waves of cyclic AMP that washed through the entire community, as each isolated cell relayed the signal to its neighbors. Slime mold aggregation, in effect, was a giant game of Telephone -- but only a few elite cells placed the original call.

It seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation. We''re naturally predisposed to think in terms of pacemakers, whether we''re talking about fungi, political systems, or our own bodies. Our actions seem governed for the most part by the pacemaker cells in our brains, and for millennia we''ve built elaborate pacemakers cells into our social organizations, whether they come in the form of kings, dictators, or city councilmen. Much of the world around us can be explained in terms of command systems and hierarchies -- why should it be any different for the slime molds?

But Shafer''s theory had one small problem: no one could find the pacemakers. While all observers agreed that waves of cyclic AMP did indeed flow through the slime mold community before aggregation, all the cells in the community were effectively interchangeable. None of them possessed any distinguishing characteristics that might elevate them to pacemaker status. Shafer''s theory had presumed the existence of a cellular monarchy commanding the masses, but as it turned out, all slime mold cells were created equal.

For the twenty years that followed the publication of Shafer''s original essay, mycologists assumed that the missing pacemaker cells were a sign of insufficient data, or poorly designed experiments: The generals were there somewhere in the mix, the scholars assumed -- they just didn''t know what their uniforms looked like yet. But Keller and Segel took another, more radical approach. Turing''s work on morphogenesis had sketched out a mathematical model wherein simple agents following simple rules could generate amazingly complex structures; perhaps the aggregations of slime mold cells were a real-world example of that behavior. Turing had focused primarily on the interactions between cells in a single organism, but it was perfectly reasonable to assume that the math would work for aggregations of free-floating cells. And so Keller started to think: What if Shafer had it wrong all along? What if the community of slime mold cells were organizing themselves? What if there were no pacemakers?

Keller and Segel''s hunch paid off dramatically. While they lacked the advanced visualization tools of today''s computers, the two scratched out a series of equations using pen and paper, equations that demonstrated how slime cells could trigger aggregation without following a leader, simply by altering the amount of cyclic AMP they released individually, then following trails of the pheromone that they encountered as they wandered through their environment. If the slime cells pumped out enough cyclic AMP, clusters of cells would start to form. Cells would begin following trails created by other cells, creating a positive feedback loop that encouraged more cells to join the cluster. If each solo cell was simply releasing cyclic AMP based on its own local assessment of the general conditions, Keller and Segel argued in a paper published in 1969, then the larger slime mold community mig

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