Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software.

By Steven Johnson

This book serves as a decent introduction into to self-organizing systems. He uses a broad range of examples that range from ants to video games. Much of the text is heavily researched, such as Resnick’s slime mold simulation, Gordon’s studies on ants, and many more, even reaching back as far as Turing in the twilight of his career. The bibliography itself makes up a substantial chunk of the book. However, he does have the tendency to make assumptions, and allows his personal bias to be shown. Many times to a fault, as they don’t seem to based on adequate research.

He seemed to focus on four key areas when discussing self-organizing systems: neighborhood interaction, pattern recognition, feedback, and indirect control. Within each section he used a broad variety of examples to try to illustrate his point. Initially, it seems somewhat eclectic, but you get used to it as you go along.

The section on neighborhood interaction seemed to be the basis for self-organizing systems. Without individual elements reacting, and communicating with other elements, they would just be completely autonomous pieces. The interaction between the individuals is what forms the foundation for the systems.

He continued to explain about Pattern Recognition, the basically dealt with the ability of multi-agent self-organized systems to recognize patterns that are more difficult for top down centralized entities to recognize. He heavily focus on the way the human brain works to illustrate his point here.

He split feedback into two distinct sections: positive, and negative feedback. Positive feedback systems feed on themselves to propel themselves onward faster and faster. The key example here was the modern media. However, the counter example was negative feedback. When a system receives negative feedback it must make changes, and adapt appropriately. The major example he used here was Slashdot’s community feedback system.

The final section of the second part of the book dealt with indirect control. My understanding is that this dealt with the emergence of an appearance of centralized behavior illustrated by the multi-agent systems. He focused a lot on video games in this section. Particularly, the Sims, and the variations thereof.

The third, and final section of the book dealt with his speculations, and assessments of what ever meant. Unfortunately, the ideas expressed here do not really seem to be substantial enough to take at face value. It is fairly obvious that he is illustrating lines of thought we are insufficiently researched, and heavily biased by his opinions.

All things considered, it was not the greatest book of its kind that I have read. But, it certainly wasn’t the worst either. It does prove to provide a good background, and underlying conceptual framework into multi-agent, self organized systems. It is just laced with a few inaccuracies, and biases.

Author: Jeff

Born a cantankerous old man, mellowed ever so slightly by age.

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