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Showing 1-10 of 16 reviews(2 star). Show all reviews
on September 13, 2002
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. Although he has a great deal to say about self-organizing systems, you will search the index in vain for the names of John Conway, Oskar Morgenstern, John von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam, Stephen Wolfram, or most of the other pioneers of the field. When he does recognize a figure from antiquity (i.e., pre-1970), it is with worshipful adulation. He italicizes the name of Marvin Minsky as if he were a demigod, and finds a book by Norbert Wiener "curiously brilliant". What exactly is the curiosity?- that a brilliant mathematician should write a brilliant book? Likewise, you will find no entry in the index under "Boolean networks" or "cellular automata" or "crystallization" or "ferromagnetism." Under "entropy" you will find only the ludicrous assertion that in nonequilibrium thermodynamics "the laws of entropy are temporarily overcome." In short, Mr. Johnson gives new meaning to the phrase "born yesterday," a degree of ignorance and juvenile solipsism that borders on arrogance.
I note that other reader-reviewers assert that the book will provide lay persons with an introduction to a new science. No, it won't. The only thing it will provide is an introduction to bad science.
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on January 30, 2002
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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on August 23, 2005
The first chapter will pique your interest. The next two chapters will present interesting examples of emergent behavior. The remainder of the book will likely leave you feeling frustrated at the poor presentation and disappointed at the lack of follow-through on your expectations from chapter 1. The density of useful information drops precipitously as the book progresses, degrading to something at or below what you would expect to read in a blog (I'm serious). I must admit I haven't been able to finish the last chapter.
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on December 13, 2001
Steven Johnson writes well. His analogies, metaphors and phrases all work. But the book itself has very, very little content. Interesting factoid here; tidbit there, but just like fast food, it tastes good but is devoid of any nutrition.
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on August 19, 2007
I purchased this book on something of a whim; it was listed as recommended by Amazon and looked like something worth checking out. This is appropriate because software systems that make recommendations based on history and feedback are one of the topics that get discussed in this book. The concept appealed to me for a number of reasons. First, it seemed like a fascinating study of complex systems and the relationship therein between the components, the system as a whole, and that which may be greater then the sum of its parts - that which is emergent. Which in fact, for a while it was. Second, I appreciate the idea that a city is a complex system that is not dissimilar to other complex systems. And third, I felt like taking a chance on something that just sounded interesting. Sadly, after high expectations brought on by a well developed first half, this book ultimately disappoints.

Credit where credit is due, this book starts off as well as a book can. In keeping with the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, there is a wonderful illustration at the start of this book featuring a map of Hamburg dated circa 1850 next to a diagram of a human brain. Whether there is ultimately anything to them or not, the similarities are astounding. It really went a long way towards grabbing my attention and making this book one that I looked forward to reading. For half of the book, my expectations were met.

The first three chapters take the seemingly mundane and unrelated topics of ant colonies, computer programs based on slime mold observations, and city layout, and make an effective comparison. Something I really liked early on about this book was its observation that both ant colonies and cities expand with an order that suggests a central plan, when in fact the main force behind their development is the elemental units just doing the things that they do. Soldier and worker ands don't do their jobs because the queen orders them to, they do them because taking care of the queen keeps the colony alive, thus sustaining their existence. Neighborhoods don't spring up because someone issues a decree to build homes, they spring up because people have wants and needs regarding where they live. And their existence in a certain place creates a continuing cycle, almost fractal in nature, of more people with their own set of wants and needs. The concept of evolution is also thrown in, and quite effectively.

I think that the strongest point the book makes is that cities are not just clusters of people, they are patterns in time. Human beings wired the way they are seem predestined to create printing presses, newspapers, radios, communications networks, TV's, and internets. But here lies the problem with this book. This is potentially a great point, and I would argue a correct one. It's just that it comes along right at about the halfway point in the book. And after that there not much else other than words. The first half of this book does what the first half of a book should do, it develops an idea. But the development of an idea needs to lead to some sort of conclusion that contains some sense of resolution. Unfortunately, somewhere shortly after the start of chapter 4, this book lets go of all of the cohesion it so nicely developed and spins into seemingly endless and tired commentary about video games and the web. Moreover, the commentary is not very good, and becomes repetitive. By the last couple of chapters it becomes quite clear the only thing concluded will be that the author thinks that in a few more years something really significant is going to come about from recent technological changes. They always do. That in and of itself is not worth very much. In the author's defense, I did read this book in 2007 and it was written in 2000. But still, a book should say considerably more this one does.

If the second half were as good as the first, this book could have been ground-breaking. I appreciate the first half, so I don't consider it a complete waste. However be prepared for quite a let down - 2 stars.
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on January 11, 2008
I saw Steven Johnson's lively and a compellingly fascinating presentation on the topic of the book at a conference, which inspired my desire to read his book.

Unfortunately, the 250+ pages of the book provide very little insight beyond a 30+ minute presentation. The writing style is not forceful or engaging, but rather dull and lifeless. The lasting feeling is that the author is attempting to make the book accessible to a group of smart 10 year olds by using short sentences, simple vocabulary and endlessly repeating the same ideas over and over again.

The initial excitement wears off after about first 50 pages and the impetus to try to read it would help you stumble through the drudgery of another 50 pages, but except to give up sometime soon afterwards.
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on October 8, 2001
While I did finish the book, I was hoping for something a bit deeper. My impression is that Steven Johnson has read widely and, enthralled by the connections, wanted to try to bring several ideas together. Either a more serious study or perhaps some insightful research of his own would have been helpful.
I expect I'll read some of the texts cited in the book, but wouldn't recommend this in hardback unless you are about to take a long plane flight and are too tired to read anything heavy.
....
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on March 15, 2002
I was disappointed with this book. A little too narrative.
Wanders a bit and is unfocused.
There are absolutely no diagrams, pictures, graphs, graphics
nothing. The topic of emergence is a lot more interesting
than you would get from this book.
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on October 8, 2001
While I did finish the book, I was hoping for something a bit deeper. My impression is that Steven Johnson has read widely and, enthralled by the connection, wanted to try to bring them together. Either a more serious study or perhaps some insightful research of his own would have been helpful.
I expect I'll read some of the texts cited in the book, but wouldn't recommend this in hardback unless you are about to take a long plane flight and are too tired to read anything heavy.
My taste runs more to Martin Gardner (Wheels, Life ...), John Allen Paulos, Steven Pinker (Language Instinct over How the Mind Works).
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on December 7, 2001
Johnson' book starts strong, with powerful clear examples of the emergence of complexity from simple organisms. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, this is an excellent introduction. Fortunately, I looked at it in a library before buying it, because he doesn't live up to the promise of his first strong examples. Instead, he drifts off into imaginative dribble about what the web might become, and turns clearity and specificity into vague ninety's hoopla that tells you nothing about emergence, or the web for that matter. The strong examples lead to a real disappointment with the book as a whole.
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