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

by Steven Johnson
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 10, 2002 0684868768 978-0684868769 Reprint
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
A VOICE LITERARY SUPPLEMENT TOP 25 FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR
AN ESQUIRE MAGAZINE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

In the tradition of Being Digital and The Tipping Point, Steven Johnson, acclaimed as a "cultural critic with a poet's heart" (The Village Voice), takes readers on an eye-opening journey through emergence theory and its applications. Explaining why the whole is sometimes smarter than the sum of its parts, Johnson presents surprising examples of feedback, self-organization, and adaptive learning. How does a lively neighborhood evolve out of a disconnected group of shopkeepers, bartenders, and real estate developers? How does a media event take on a life of its own? How will new software programs create an intelligent World Wide Web?
In the coming years, the power of self-organization -- coupled with the connective technology of the Internet -- will usher in a revolution every bit as significant as the introduction of electricity. Provocative and engaging, Emergence puts you on the front lines of this exciting upheaval in science and thought.

Frequently Bought Together

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software + This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters around the World (Macmillan Science) + The Cold Dish: A Longmire Mystery (Walt Longmire Mysteries)
Price for all three: $36.00

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An individual ant, like an individual neuron, is just about as dumb as can be. Connect enough of them together properly, though, and you get spontaneous intelligence. Web pundit Steven Johnson explains what we know about this phenomenon with a rare lucidity in Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. Starting with the weird behavior of the semi-colonial organisms we call slime molds, Johnson details the development of increasingly complex and familiar behavior among simple components: cells, insects, and software developers all find their place in greater schemes.

Most game players, alas, live on something close to day-trader time, at least when they're in the middle of a game--thinking more about their next move than their next meal, and usually blissfully oblivious to the ten- or twenty-year trajectory of software development. No one wants to play with a toy that's going to be fun after a few decades of tinkering--the toys have to be engaging now, or kids will find other toys.

Johnson has a knack for explaining complicated and counterintuitive ideas cleverly without stealing the scene. Though we're far from fully understanding how complex behavior manifests from simple units and rules, our awareness that such emergence is possible is guiding research across disciplines. Readers unfamiliar with the sciences of complexity will find Emergence an excellent starting point, while those who were chaotic before it was cool will appreciate its updates and wider scope. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

To have the highly touted editor of a highly touted Web culture organ writing about the innate smartness of interconnectivity seems like a hip, winning combination unless that journal becomes the latest dot-com casualty. Feed, of which Johnson was cofounder and editor-in-chief, recently announced it was shuttering its windows, which should make for a less exuberant launch for his second bricks-and-mortar title, following 1997's Interface Culture. Yet the book's premise and execution make it compelling, even without the backstory. In a paradigmatic example here, ants, without leaders or explicit laws, organize themselves into highly complex colonies that adapt to the environment as a single entity, altering size and behavior to suit conditions exhibiting a weird collective intelligence, or what has come to be called emergence. In the first two parts of the book, Johnson ranges over historical examples of such smart interconnectivity, from the silk trade in medieval Florence to the birth of the software industry and to computer programs that produce their own software offspring, or passively map the Web by "watching" a user pool. Johnson's tone is light and friendly, and he has a journalistic gift for wrapping up complex ideas with a deft line: "you don't want one of the neurons in your brain to suddenly become sentient." In the third section, which bears whiffs of '90s exuberance, Johnson weighs the impact of Web sites like Napster, eBay and Slashdot, predicting the creation of a brave, new media world in which self-organizing clusters of shared interests structure the entertainment industry. The wide scope of the book may leave some readers wanting greater detail, but it does an excellent job of putting the Web into historical and biological context, with no dot.com diminishment. (Sept. 19) Forecast: All press is good press, so the failure of Feed at least makes a compelling hook for reviews, which should be extensive. A memoir of the author's Feed years can't be far behind, but in the meantime this should sell solidly, with a possible breakout if Johnson's media friends get behind it fully.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (September 10, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684868768
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684868769
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.6 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #98,537 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Questions from Readers for Steven Johnson

Q
Steven, you've often written about the ways in which a city's density enables great ideas to flourish. You've applied the same metaphor to the web as a engine of creativity and innovation. What about book-reading? Do see our natural inclinations...
Ryan T. Meehan asked Aug 30, 2011
Author Answered

Well, my first response is that the book, in its traditional form, has been as much of an idea generator as the Web or the city over the centuries. In part that was because it had been the best mechanism for storing and sharing information, before computers and networks came along. But also because the linear format of the book -- and the word count of most books -- allowed more complex and important arguments or observations to be presented. So I would hope we can preserve some of that linearity and that length in the digital age. But in general, I am exhilarated by all the new possibilities of the networked book. I wrote an essay for the WSJ journal a few years ago -- inspired actually by the Kindle I had just bought -- about where I thought the book was heading. Here's the link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123980920727621353.html

Steven Johnson answered Aug 31, 2011

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
152 of 167 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Reads like a magazine article April 14, 2002
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book attempts to explain artificial intelligence in terms of how ant colonies, cities, and modern software operate. If it seems to have the feel of a magazine article, it's because it's not written by a professional in the field but by a professional writer who is a frequent contributor to trendy, popular publications such as Feed and Wired. Although it did not give me the understanding I was looking for about emergence theory, I would not dismiss it completely because it does have a lot of interesting information, as any good magazine article would. It has an overview of Jane Jacobs new urbanism that is both complete and illustrating, it explains how an intelligent kind of feedback makes some web sites successful as virtual communities, and what I found most interesting, how video games are evolving in ways that seem to give them a life of their own. If you are looking for an insightful, deep look at artificial intelligence for the layman, Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel Escher Bach" is still unchallenged. On the other hand if you are looking for a more relaxed, amusing and down to earth approach, filled with cool stuff you can impress your friends with, this book is for you.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligence (and more) from Unenlighted Little Parts November 19, 2001
Format:Hardcover
If you see an ant, you pay it little attention. It's the lines of ants that are really fascinating, and the colonies that really get things done. An ant by itself is not only a speck, it is a humble one, capable of little. It isn't just a matter of getting a lot of ants together so that by sheer numbers they multiply what one ant can do. Ants organize. They communicate. They have tasks, they assign workers, they shift assignments as old jobs get done and new ones come up. We have tried to understand this sort of organization in our own way. To get such things done ourselves, we would have to have a leader and subleaders, and in trying to understand ants, we even attributed to the queen of the ant colony a sort of CEO status. She isn't, of course; she is an egg-laying machine, but she is deep in the darkest parts of the colony, and has no idea about what her workers are doing or how to respond to quality assurance suggestions. She is not the chief of the bureaucracy of the ant colony. Something else is. Who is giving the orders?
No one. The ants are self-organizing, according to Steven Johnson, whose bright book _Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software_ (Scribner) is obviously not just about ants. Ants are just an easy example. Johnson's book is full of satisfying analogies. Take your brain, for instance. Those neurons don't know anything. Each one is capably of firing when stimulated, and that's about it. "No individual neuron is sentient," Johnson writes, "and yet somehow the union of billions of neurons creates self-awareness.
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566 of 665 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars How not to learn about emergence September 13, 2002
Format:Hardcover
Steven Johnson's "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" (Scribner, New York, 2001),is a very bad book, shallow, careless, and disappointing. I was lured by its nominal subject, which interests me greatly, and now I'm sorry I bought it. Mr. Johnson is a young- very young- video gamer who has managed to parlay a superficial aquaintance with the vocabulary of modern science into a series of trendy popular books, incomprehensibly praised by such authorities as Steven Pinker and Esther Dyson.
The book opens with a fraudulent pictorial simile, juxtaposing a side view of the human brain and a map of Hamburg ca. 1850. Indeed they do resemble each other, and the reader is supposed to infer (with no help from Johnson) that the resemblance arises from the operation of similar governing principles. Quite apart from the validity of this conclusion, it apparently does not trouble Johnson that the brain is three-dimensional and the city map is essentially two-dimensional, or that the comparison would fail if a frontal view of the brain had been chosen, or if Paris or El Paso or Denver had been chosen instead of Hamburg.
It gets worse. At the most fundamental level, after reading the book I find it impossible to say what the author means by "emergence", his nominal title. When he discusses ant colonies it appears to mean swarm intelligence; when he discusses video games it appears to mean interactive software; at still other places it appears to mean whatever recent developments in the realm of computers or biophysics or city planning that he approves of.
Moreover, he appears to be totally ignorant of all science and mathematics that preceded his own adolescence.
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46 of 50 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mediocre At Best January 30, 2002
Format:Hardcover
Johnson has a riveting introduction and opening but the rest of the book falls flat with a superficial treatment of emergence. The author would also have the reader think that he knows alot about cities and their development, but his actual understanding of the subject is very, very thin.
Try "Signs of Life" by Richard Sole and Brian Goodwin for a much better elucidation of complexity science and the role of emergence. Another book just out is "Self Organization in Biological Systems" published by Princten University Press as part of its series on complexity science.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A good overview of the very, very, very long story of life in its...
I found this book through a Public Radio broadcast of "Radio Lab" that was focusing on the emergence of life in a variety of forms. Read more
Published 13 days ago by Marky Mark Twain
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and insighful
The best book you'll ever find on the subject of emergence. It covers all the grounds of society, cities, nature and the world wide web.
Published 3 months ago by Karissa Carcano
5.0 out of 5 stars Discovering an "emerging" new topic in science
"Emergence"--closely related to "self-organization"--is a process which has always characterized so many different areas studied by science, but of which we have... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Charles C. Dickinson III
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent general intro Camazine the next step
Very good intro to self organization for general readership, and spanning a lot of territory in overview fashion. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Let's Compare Options
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
Brilliant book on emergent systems, ranging from looking at how simple ants create complex colonies through to the optimal way to structure cities. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Mark C
2.0 out of 5 stars starts well, but......
The stories of the ants and the cities are good, but then the software part is outdated and thus is useless
Published 8 months ago by James M. Todd
5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening.
I purchased this book as required reading for a class. It's extremely interesting... the class is over and I have decided to keep the book so I can read it in its entirety. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Heather Dantzler
5.0 out of 5 stars Full of exciting ideas.
Any book that starts with a mathematician's view of cellular slime molds promises to break new ground, and this one does. Read more
Published 11 months ago by T. Ryan
4.0 out of 5 stars Read critically
Very interesting and well written book. The author is pretty constantly pushing the idea that understanding emergence and writing emergent software are the be-all end-all solutions... Read more
Published 12 months ago by M. Barr
3.0 out of 5 stars It's Pop Science, What Did You All Expect?
This is a work of popular science, a very run-of-the-mill work of popular science. The chapter dedicated to cities was as dull as it was uninformative, but the rest was alright. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Adam Alonzi
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