Thursday, August 13, 2009

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

By Steven Johnson

“What ants, neurons, cities and software have in common?”

Steven Johnson (founder of Feed, one of the first online magazines) introduces us in the amazing world of ant colonies, mold, neighbourhoods, neurons and software dynamics.

These communities have the same pattern of behaviour. Every each of them creates an emergence system. Their basic elements act locally, as a result it emerges a global behaviour. The ants of Deborah Gordon do not follow the orders of their queen. They act according to a gradient of pheromones and contacts between other ants. Because of this ants are one of the most successful organisms in the Earth. This pattern appears also in mold aggregations. You can find in the web StarLogo, the software uses to model the complex dynamics of these curious live beings.

Besides ants and molds, Johnson explains that emergence occurs also in human creations as cities and software. He points out the importance of the analysis of Death and Life of Great American Cities written by Jane Jacobs. Her famous “ballet of sidewalks” must be the key factor which a neighbourhood works. The diversity of interactions between neighbours and strangers were the foundations of neighbourhood guilds like Port Santa Maria in Florence. Nowadays these sorts of relationships are becoming extinct because of the appearance of the new edge cities, megalopolis that are created around great malls in the convergence of several highways. The only possible interaction between individuals in these urban systems is by car...

Finally, Emergence shows us the important role of webs as, or eBay. The first one (created by Rob Malda) is a digital blog of news and comments that are controlled by the own users. They vote positively the best and interesting opinions and vote negatively the worst and spam ones. It sounds like Darwin Natural Selection and is also very similar to the biddings that you can find in eBay. On the other hand, Amazon uses very simple algorithms to join products that the costumer may like (“Costumers who bought that also bought this”). This kind of software is the basis of new routes which are configuring the chaos of Internet. Small actions of each blog writer, costumer or seller create a global pattern just like ants and neighbours do in their colonies and cities.