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

3.6 out of 5 stars 124 customer reviews

ISBN-13: 978-0684868769
ISBN-10: 0684868768
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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

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.


Product Details

  • File Size: 2474 KB
  • Print Length: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (September 11, 2012)
  • Publication Date: September 11, 2012
  • Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008TRUBLY
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #289,033 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Dennis Muzza on 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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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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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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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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