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

Steven Johnson
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Aug 2002

Steven Johnson's Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software is a fascinating look at how self-organising systems are changing the world.

  • Why do people cluster together in neighborhoods?
  • How do internet communities spring up from nowhere?
  • Why is a brain conscious even though no single neuron is?
  • What causes a media frenzy?

The answer, as Steven Johnson's groundbreaking book shows, is emergence: change that occurs from the bottom up. When enough individual elements interact and organize themselves, the result is collective intelligence - even though no-one is in charge. It is a phenomenon that exists at every level of experience, and will

revolutionize the way we see the world.

  J.G. Ballard

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

'Mind-expanding ... intelligent, witty and tremendously thought-provoking ... Popular science books interesting enough to read twice don't come along all that often'

'Not just a fascinating quirk of science: it's the future'
  The New York Times

Steven Johnson is the author of the acclaimed books Everything Bad is Good for You, Mind Wide Open, Where Good Ideas Come From, Emergence and Interface Culture. His writing appeared in the Guardian, the New Yorker, Nation and Harper's, as well as the op-ed pages of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He is a Distinguished Writer In Residence at NYU's School Of Journalism, and a Contributing Editor to Wired.

Frequently Bought Together

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software + Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order (Penguin Press Science) + Chaos: Making a New Science
Price For All Three: 21.67

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (1 Aug 2002)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0140287752
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140287752
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 30,465 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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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.


" 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
Browse Sample Pages
Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book of two halves 3 Dec 2003
By A Customer
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Technologically informed and beautifully written 23 Nov 2001
By A Customer
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
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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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A gentle introduction, and then the rest 25 Sep 2002
By A Customer
This book is strong when it comes to recounting examples of observable emergence - the growth of cities, the society of the ant colony etc .. - but it is very weak when applying the theories to modern technological advances. Unfortunately there is a lot of time spent on the latter at the expense of the former.
Mr Johnson betrays some fundemental misunderstandings about the structure and "workings" of the internet which for me conjured up the bewilderment on my mother's face as she attempts to program the video recoreder.
Nevertheless, it is fascinating subject matter and this book serves as a great starting point for further reading. Just be warned you may have to grit your teeth through the later sections.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
By Jules
I found 'Emergence' very thought provoking in the first half, where Steven Johnson explains in clear language how ants and other emergent systems form types of intelligence constructed from stupid stuff. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is more like Steven's wish list for the future World Wide Web, new computer games, and home or business appliances which may come to fruition, but makes boring reading. Still worth the money though for the first half.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
If 'Emergence' is one thing, it is thought-provoking. Whether you are new to "emergence theory" or have read about it before, there will be something here to get your brain whirring. Johnson takes the reader on a fascinating tour through the history of the science, and shows us, crisply and in compelling detail, the many ways emergence affects us today - from our behaviour on the side-walk (or, in the UK, pavement) to the near chaos internet discussion forums. And there are ants: one of the best sections in 'Emergence' is the chapter about the behaviour of ants.
There are moments when the reader wonders where Johnson is going: he can become so involved in a particular aspect of his argument (the development of the internet and of computer games, for example) that the broader picture - the nature of emergent systems, and their uses in, or relevance to, our lives - can seem a little distant. The book as a whole would have benefited if the theory and science of the early chapters had featured more strongly in the latter half. But Johnson writes so well, in such an enjoyable, enthusiastic style, that the book never becomes hard work.
'Emergence' is a good book that will appeal to anyone (and I mean anyone - this isn't a book just geeks or boffins) who enjoys looking at the world around them in challenging new ways. And it is a book with a long life - you are sure to return to it, flicking through the index to find Johnson's lucid take on one thing or another.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Emergence
Anyone interested in the link between neurology and psychology might like this book. Maybe not the full explanation but it looks like someone's getting there - thinking systems can... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Edward
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging enough but aimed at the newcomer
What geek wouldn't be attracted to a book covering subjects ranging from Slashdot and Sim City to Alan Turing, Gerald Edelman, ant colonies and neuroscience? Read more
Published on 14 April 2010 by B. Nelson
3.0 out of 5 stars Great start, but falls flat
The book is written about a topic that I find extremely interesting. Reading the first chapter, I thought that this was going to be one helluva book on emergence and... Read more
Published on 22 Jun 2009 by Lars Hansen
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing insights into how systems work.
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... Read more
Published on 14 Feb 2009 by Steven Unwin
2.0 out of 5 stars superficial and ultimately unsatisfying
As some of the other reviewers have written, this book is strongest when reflecting on the operation of patterns of emergence established over the longue dureé within ant... Read more
Published on 11 Mar 2007 by S. O'Dwyer
2.0 out of 5 stars a little disappointing
I was disappointed by this book and thought it pretty lightweight. There were too many examples of emergent systems from IT, software, the world-wide web (descirbed in pretty... Read more
Published on 15 April 2003 by H. Johns
3.0 out of 5 stars A short introduction to complexe emergent system
Steven Johnson offers here a short introduction to the complex and puzzling theory of Emergence or "the movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication". Read more
Published on 7 Mar 2003 by Roger Jay
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, but too uncritical
Steven Johnson has a clear and engaging style, twinned with an academic's talent for spotting examples everywhere. But this is also his downfall. Read more
Published on 14 Oct 2002 by Mr. Paul J. Bradshaw
2.0 out of 5 stars Too simple
Emergence is a simple concept (order being 'created' out of apparent disorder and simple rules creating apparently amazing complexity). Read more
Published on 27 Sep 2002 by Odibus
5.0 out of 5 stars Emergence,
I was given the book as a present and knew nothing of the subject but by the end of the first couple of pages I couldn't put it down. Read more
Published on 22 Aug 2002 by "jorogers"
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