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Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software Paperback – 1 Aug 2002


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Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software + Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another + Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order (Penguin Press Science)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (1 Aug. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140287752
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140287752
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.7 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 111,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description

Amazon Review

As Steven Johnson explains with a rare lucidity in Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, 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. Starting with the weird behaviour of the semi-colonial organisms we call slime molds, Johnson details the development of increasingly complex and familiar behaviour 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 10-or-20-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 behaviour 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.

Review

" Mind-expanding...intelligent, witty and tremendously thought-provoking" -- The Guardian

"A delight...clever and thought provoking" -- Washington Post

"A dizzying, dazzling romp through fields as disparate as urban planning, computer game design, neurology and control theory" -- The Economist

"Fascinating and timely" -- Steven Pinker

A successful and fluent attempt to put complexity theory at the service of cultural criticism" -- Independent, Books of the Year

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
It's early fall in Palo Alto, and Deborah Gordon and I are sitting in her office in Stanford's Gilbert Biological Sciences building, where she spends three-quarters of the year studying behavioral ecology. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 3 Dec. 2003
Format: Paperback
The first half is excelent, and worth buying the book for alone. It clearly explains, by jumping from ants to 12th century silk traders in Florence, how micro-motives (e.g. individual ants releasing and following pheromones), can - unconsciously - lead to macro-behaviour (e.g. an ant colony finding the shortest path to a food source).
By contrast the second half is more speculative, in particular whether the world wide web is emerging and thus whther it will - like SkyNet in the Terminator movies - become sentient. It might interest many readers, but personally I would have preferred the pages devoted to a deeper - slightly more scientific - view of how the simple rules (e.g. get close, but not too close, to your neighbour) can lead to complex organised behaviour (e.g. birds flocking without any "leader" in the sense of one that the others follow).
Overall a good book, and one worth buying and reading to the end, but one that Dawkins could have done better.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 23 Nov. 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is really appealing science writing, all the more impressive for constructing its own place from pieces of an awful lot of different disciplines and discourses. Particularly note-worthy are the book's grounding in intellectual history (eg the explicit links between Jane Jacobs' ideas on cities and Warren Weaver's Rockefeller Foundation prospectus for studies of organized complexity) and its excellent insights into how to design systems that become self-organizing on the web (slashdot, etc). It's also full of wonderful throwaways delivered with the sort of tone that just makes you think that this is a nice person to have tell you things.
The book's main drawbacks, it seems to me, are an unwillingness to differentiate between spontaneous emergence and emergence in evolved systems (such as ant colonies) and a perhaps-related lack of discussion of the history of the concept of the superorgansim in ecology, where it originates. But though these make it incomplete, they don't undermine its insights into designing systems for emergence, which are, I think, the heart of the book. A minor drawback is a slight reluctance to push at the political aspects of the work -- to look at the ideologies built into rules of emergence in something like Sim City.
Given these caveats, I must admit that an honest rating would be 4 stars; but since the only review posted so far gives it an unfair-to-my-mind one star I've tried to boost the average. This second guessing of the software running Amazon is probably against Johnson's principles - I should behave with a straight-forward ant-like honesty and expect the right average star rating to come out regardless. But what the hell.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 30 Jan. 2002
Format: Hardcover
I have dipped into many of the books floating abouton Complexity and I must confess that I have really enjoyed this one. So it does tend to focus on computing games, ant colonies and slime mold. But hey, I've started to bore my mates about just how clever slime mold and ant colonies are - as well as actually starting to think there is more to computing games than sad geeks playing Tomb Raider. There is a plethora of books by the Kauffmans and Lewins of this world to suit the biologists and anthropologists among us. It's an easy read and has provided tangible examples of Complex Adaptive Systems: voice recongition software, cities, media frenzy as well as the ubiquitous slime mold. In the end it has to be appreciated for what it is: a very readable insight that manages to demystify what can be a very mathematically-dogged and elite subject area.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Steven Unwin on 14 Feb. 2009
Format: Paperback
This is an excellent thought provoking book that I thoroughly enjoyed, and provides a good introduction to the topic of emergence dealing with the bottom-up creation of intelligent behaviour from lower level less intelligent behaviour.

This is perfectly illustrated by the example of harvester ants whose colonies exhibit intelligence and learning that no individual ant possesses. The complexity of the colony and its structure is constructed by the behaviours of ants whose vocabulary extends to only ten discrete actions. In a real sense the ants do not consciously create the colony but it is created through the interactions between the ants. There is no helicopter view of the colony held by any ant, no master plan, yet the colony is created. It emerges from the lower level actions of the ants.

Interesting though the behaviour of ants is, the book goes on to cite many other examples much closer to home, not the least of these is the creation of cities which is shown to parallel this emergent approach.

The book explores how our mindset makes it difficult to see and accept the creation of complex intelligent behaviour in this emergent way. Our thinking tends to look for a top-down leader driven explanation, the bird in the flock that sets the direction, rather than each bird in the flock following a simple set of rules with the flock behaviour emerging as a consequence.

For me the book provided real insights into the prevalence of emergent systems and points to computer games such as Sim City which allow us to glimpse the creation and operation of emergent worlds.

The book roams across a broad canvass discussing the behaviours of cities, ants, slime mould, software, the internet and politics as emergent systems.

It is an excellent and stimulating read that introduces the principles of emergence and may change the way you look at how a host of systems operate at home and in business.
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