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Saturday, March 30, 2002

Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software

by Steven Johnson

I have always had an affinity for science books, so this one caught my eye while I was reading some magazine. Johnson gives a clearer understanding of how relatively "dumb" communities, like ants, can show us how some systems become self-organizing. Ants develop large communities that mange all the necessities of daily life; food, cleanup, reproduction; when each ant only knows about their own local environment.

One of the best sections seeks to explain a common phenomenon that I have experienced in many different situations. Once a given community grows beyond a certain size, the ability of a small minority to hijack the community becomes easier. These "cranks" seek to turn every discussion to their own ends regardless of the context. Johnson uses Slashdot as an example of how moderation feedback, having members rate other members messages helps to self-organize the system so that it can continue to work even with millions of members.

Emergence offers a wonderful explanation of systems that we might not even notice operating around us and ways we can use these self-organizing systems to solve some of societies biggest problems.


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