Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Emergence, by Steven Johnson

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

Distributed systems combine the output of multiple processes to solve a single problem, a common topic in computer science. Johnson explains this subject in simple terms, starting with the common ant. An individual ant does not have a view of the “big picture;” it just follows certain simple rules that trigger when certain simple phenomena are encountered. However, the colony as a whole can obviously manage its society, creating complicated and advanced anthills and balancing the various roles (worker, soldier, ...) needed at any given time. The queen, contrary to popular belief, is not the central architect; actually, the colony as a whole makes decisions in a distributed fashion based on incomplete—or emerging—data points.

As other authors have noted, making decisions in this fashion is something at which humans aren’t very skilled. Because the volume of data that is available to us at this point in history, the implication is we too often become paralyzed when trying to make decisions. Interestingly, Johnson posits that our children will be much better at this than we are. Younger generations are more comfortable with less control of their world, largely because of video games. Titles like The Legend of Zelda don’t have a set rulebook, so players become skilled at guessing causal relationships and building and testing working hypotheses of the true underlying rules. This skill translates to being “more tolerant of being out of control, more tolerant of that exploratory phase where the rules don’t all make sense, and where few goals have been clearly defined.”

Johnson’s style is smooth and easy, with a dose of levity for color. “If people were somehow deprived of the theatrical conflicts of city sidewalks, they’d all end up hollow men—or worse, Republicans.” Ha. :) Clear and clever writing makes a complex topic feel accessible, and the time to pass quickly.

From ants to urban planning to memes, the author covers a lot of ground about emerging systems, and hints at the importance of this subject in our near future. With Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare just in the social networking arena, new ways of processing data are going to be needed. The sheer volume of information is going to require that decisions are made based on localized or incomplete sets. Emergence is an intriguing glimpse into possible methods that may be used to accomplish this.

First Sentence:
It’s early fall in Palo Alto, and Deborah Gordon and I are sitting in her office in Stanford’s Gilbert Biological Sciences building, where she spends three-quarters of the year studying behavioral ecology.

No comments:

Search This Blog