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by Steven Johnson
Allen Lane, £14.99, ISBN 0713994002
What exactly have ants got in common with cities, brains, and software? The answer according to this book is emergence: “the movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication.” In other words, something that is more than just the sum of its parts.
The important point about this is that there is the lack of topdown control guiding organization; rather self-organisation occurs bottom-up through the interactions of many individual units —whatever they may be (e.g. ants, slime mould cells).
This book gives a good non-technical introduction to emergent behaviour. The author is a “Media, technology and cultural critic,” and though the book isn’t technical it is well written and researched An extensive bibliography is useful for those wanting to delve into the subject further. There is also an index which is handy with this kind of book.
The first part of the book gives an overview of how ants, cities, and software are related. It discusses how organised complexity and emergent behaviour can arise from the interactions of many individual units which behave according to simple rules. Subsequent parts go into more detail of cities, software, and brains; many interesting examples are used, and this coupled with an easygoing style makes the book a fairly easy read. The author draws on both culture and history as well as appropriate technical information to put the ideas across. Since the author is American some of the cultural elements he brings in to the discussion may be unfamiliar to British readers, but fortunately he provides enough background on them.
I’d recommend this book as a great starting point to find out about emergence/self-organisation. It’s likely to spur people on to find out more about this fascinating subject.