Emergence describes the growing understanding of emergent properties in large populations from slime molds to cities to brains to people to software.
Johnson wants you to know about Emergence. Emergence gives you perspective. Perspective helps you understand context. Context helps you make sense of things. Since the dawn of consciousness, people have been looking for context. Emergence shows us that populations gain a shared, deep, yet barely conscious understanding of things like our roles, the instances of danger, and how to spot trends. As various types of pressures mount (be they in the forms of pheromone slime, DNA, social mores, or other elements) individuals begin to support a society. They begin to cooperate. This may be permanent or ad-hoc, for survival or whim. It made even be for ill, but the tendency to flock and act is pronounced. This impacts us from the macro (how our civilization supports itself) to the individual (how we understand that the person sitting across from us is feeling). A powerful book with no ending, Emergence just sort of stops on its final page leaving the reader smarter and with the understanding that the end of the book is not the end of the story.
I'm an urban planner. I often felt that my urban planning degree left me prepared for everything and nothing. We had a little economics, a little public policy, a little civil engineering, a little architecture, etc. I always felt off kilter in the planning profession - as if I were doing what I thought I should be doing, but somehow missing the mark of what I would be best at.
After being an urban planner for many years, I decided to leave urban planning and go into technology - creating software for government so agencies and bureaucrats could cooperate better / could manage better. About five years into this, I fell into a group in Palo Alto called Institute for the Future. After one night's meetings, we went out for dinner. Of the eight of us at the table, four of us had urban planning degrees.
Out of the 40,000 students at Michigan State University in 1989 - 15 were urban planners. Entirely gathered we were hardly even a dinner party. Yet, here we were blinking at each other across a dinner table next to the gates of Stanford - 50% urban planners.
Emergence | Context.
50% of us defined by urban planning, yet no longer doing urban planning and ... here. Looking into the future of technology and society.
We had made the choices of career paths independently. Different universities, the same degree and then this destination (or this way station on our journeys). All with the same story about really liking urban planning but wanting something more ... something like this.
Johnson touches a nerve therefore in tying Emergence not just to the movement of mobs or slime molds, but to the evolutions of - specificially - urban form and software. Under these he continues to break them down by the formation of community, transportation, and modelling / simulations. You could scarcely pierce my soul more cleanly.
Emergence is shown to be an inate property in all living things. From single cells to complex constructs like societies, emergent properties are measureable, somewhat predictable, and usually unconscious. Slime molds are individual organisms that can quickly coalesce at a food source and, when that food source is depleted, disband. But the coalescence is not the action of a single controlling King Slime Mold, rather it is the many-to-many communications of individual slime mold cells that make this possible.
Slime Molds are the ultimate ad-hocracy.
But somehow, we too are like Slime Molds. Urban planners gathered around a dinner table to discuss futurism rather than out processing development permit requests.
While I was a growth management and transportation planner at Metro, the regional government in Portland, Oregon, we were undertaking a series of initiatives to help foster certain types of growth and development in the region. The Transportation Planning Rule and Region 2040 were each, in their own way, meant to promote the Jane Jacobsian ideal of a vibrant city.
And it worked ... but not alone.
The residents of Portland and the rest of Oregon were intrinsic to the successes of these initiatives and they were probably less responsible for the failures. You see, these projects were highly controversial. They provided guidelines (dictates) for how to develop in ways that promoted pedestrian activity, ecologically friendly design, and community.
Anyone who goes to Portland from almost anywhere is amazed at how dense the city is, yet how easy it is to get around. They are amazed as how liberating it is to walk around.
Is this because of the Portland population or the planning? The answer can only be yes if you take them both together. Portland style planning would bomb in Nebraska. At least at the moment.
The Region 2040 Plan could have only happened in a place with the political will to allow it to be created in the first place. Yet, many people in Portland now, moved there in light of how it is laid out and managed. A virtuous cycle where the population wanted walkability, cohesive neighborhoods and transportation choices -- and government delivered. But if you wanted to point to the person or the day that sparked that desire and you won't find it.
It emerged from the culture of Portland, Oregon. A culture that was the product of its inhabitants as a whole.
After being in Portland for a while, I came back to Seattle. I have been frustrated by the difference. Portland can build infrastructure quickly, the population stays informed, the culture grows. Seattle can't seem to find its culture. We don't know what we are, or so it feels.
Emergence can be stymied. Slime molds can have their pheromone trails erased, covered up, or removed. Elements can work against emergent behavior. This may lead to compensatory emergent patterns, but those are adaptive and adaptation takes time.
Time, after all, is the key to emergence, which is frustrating when you are a single celled organism itching for results.
Johnson covers a lot of ground in this book and, as is often the case, I talked more about the concepts involved than the book itself. Most of my notes in Emergence cover the fact that Emergence was written before blogging, before Second Life, before World of Warcraft. So his examples of emergent behavior on the net or in video games is already antiquated. He notes in the book that games were slated to come out shortly after publication that would advance the emergence themes. When Spore comes out this fall, which includes emergent properties not only in game play but also in how other beings come to populate various worlds, that should be a great standard setter.
I also find it somewhat eerie that, utterly in context and at random, I quoted Johnson in my blog post earlier today.
Lastly, he covers the then natal field of Traffic Adaptive Control (or so it has become known) where we are starting to introduce emergent properties into traffic management software. Signals are beginning to learn from the actions in the rest of their network. This will relieve us of arcane and rarely accurate signal timing plans and introduce us into a world where the traffic network is self-regulating. The signals watch the movement of vehicles and adjust their light patters to maximize efficiency or other operational needs.