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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Technologically informed and beautifully written
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...
Published on 23 Nov 2001

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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book of two halves
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...
Published on 3 Dec 2003


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4.0 out of 5 stars Emergence, 7 April 2014
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This review is from: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (Paperback)
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 evolve naturally given the means available - looks like God got put out in the cold again, however.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging enough but aimed at the newcomer, 14 April 2010
By 
B. Nelson "Brendan Nelson" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (Paperback)
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? In this book Steven Johnson touches on all of these topics and more to provide an insightful and educational introduction to the science of emergence.

Emergence is a phenomenon in complex systems where the behaviours of individual components (ants in a colony, cars in a traffic jam, etc) unwittingly contribute to higher-level behaviours in the system itself. These higher-level behaviours appear so structured and patterned that we often think they're caused by conscious, centrally directed planning - but more often than not, this is far from the truth.

Johnson looks at emergence from a wide range of perspectives. He relates the longer-term behavioural patterns of ant colonies to the patterns sustained by cities over centuries. He shows how computer games like Sim City demonstrate basic similarities to biological systems such as slime mould. And, using Slashdot as an example, he discusses how successful online communities manage to incorporate the same sorts of phatic communication that help us handle life in large cities.

The author draws upon an eclectic bibliography which is expanded upon in the book's notes. The sources come from a wide range of fields not just because emergence is a widely applicable model, but also because it's a comparatively new science, so there isn't much in the way of specialised literature yet. This gives the book a high nodal value: although this book is aimed squarely at the newcomer, it points the way to deeper and more technical material on its topic.

At the same time, however - and this might be a curse of popular science books in general - Emergence seems to lose its sense of direction in the latter third, in which Johnson talks about anti-globalisation movements and devices like the TiVo but doesn't connect them convincingly to the book's main theme. To quote another reviewer here, this is Johnson in "Pundit 2040" mode.

For me, Emergence has served as a genuine introduction to a new field of thought and - at risk of sounding corny - a new way of looking at the world. It's caused my "want list" of new books to expand dramatically and into unexpected areas. It's probable that, over time, I'll look back on this book as being one of a few that have had a genuine and profound effect on me, even if only because of the other books and writers it has pointed me towards. This is the sort of thing popular science books should aspire to.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emergence,, 22 Aug 2002
This review is from: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (Paperback)
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. Johnson starts you off on a rollercoaster ride which only lets up so you can catch your breath for a few pages before running headlong into the next set of examples and references.
Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software is a perfect follow on from some of the issues Johnson hints at in Interface Culture (which I read afterwards, and was glad I approached the two books in this order).
The weight of evidence is presented in a chatty, informal but well thought out structure never quite overpowering but is like a guiding light through an enormous and enormously complex subject. Looking up from the book is the same feeling as coming out of the cinema into the daylight.
I've now read the book four times and each time I understand a bit more about how Emergence is undeniably woven into society's very fabric.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, but too uncritical, 14 Oct 2002
By 
Mr. Paul J. Bradshaw (Midlands, UK) - See all my reviews
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Steven Johnson has a clear and engaging style, twinned with an academic's talent for spotting examples everywhere. But this is also his downfall. In contemplating 'emergence' in organic life and in software he over-emphasises its potential to change, and underestimates the potential of infrastructures to resist this change.
This is a useful spotlight on an important process in modern life - but academically it could be much more stringent.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great start, but falls flat, 22 Jun 2009
By 
Lars Hansen (Denmark) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (Paperback)
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 complexity.

Unfortunately, the quality of the writing declines sharply following the first chapter. The author gets into some weird discussions about the internet as a united brain (even like SKYNET), and then it really starts going downhill.

Too bad the author did not manage to keep the momentum from the first chapter. If then, he would have written a classic on the topic.
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10 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A short introduction to complexe emergent system, 7 Mar 2003
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This review is from: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (Paperback)
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".
In an emergent system, complexity is organised from bottom to top. There is no hierarchy or rules imposed onto a system from a minority, but a set of basic rules that will govern local interactions that in turn will create higher organisation and the emergence of a complex and sophisticated behaviour from the whole.
Johnson starts by exposing the Myth of The Ant Queen allegedly ruling from the centre of her kingdom and bossing around billions of workers ants. Ants in fact obey a set of simple and basic rules that will determine local behaviours which, when combined, will produce an orderly and working society.
It is then an easy step to move from an ant colony to human society and in particular the way our towns are organised. Johnson underlines the work of Jane Jacobs on the importance of street walks. Street walks are where the "human ants" interact and decide the local organisation of their environment. The results of these local interactions will decide the overall appearance of the area, the nature of the people living there, the shops and so on. For someone who has been living for some time in the same place, I suppose it is easy to see how things change, but not always why they have changed.
This theory could suggest that everything is ever changing. However, and at least on the Old Continent, patterns that have resisted the passage of time are still observable. For example, the Jewellers of Ponte Vecchio in Firenze, the Parisian trading centre of Les Halles, the Fashion designers of Carnaby Streets in London. These patterns are an important part of our learning ability and, interestingly, can be encoded into computational programs that can be used to improve the Internet (or to produce games such as Sim City).
Alexa was one of the first programmes able to establish connections between websites of similar interests. The connection was not based on the programme investigating and deciding which sites were of similar nature but on the habits of the net user, surfing from one site to another, Alexa was only trying to identify a navigation pattern. The results could sometimes be surprising. A variant of Alexa is now embedded in your browser (mine is turned off; where I surf is no one else business).
But what was missing was a feedback function. A function that would regulate the system and improves it. Here Johnson moves into a territory of great interest for the Blue Ear community. Taking the example of SlashDot and its thousands of users and contributors, Johnson explains how an open editorial feedback was set up in order to filter the spam and the cranks from the good quality contributions. The readers would mark each contribution from -1 to 5, and it would be possible to select the contributions accordingly, reducing the signal/noise level.
Emergent behaviour can be recreated "in vitro", and computer software can become emergent when put under the stress of a selection process. There is quite a lot of similarity between the Theory of Emergence and the Theory of Evolution whether we consider Darwin, Gould or Hawkins. When Hawkins would probably see the selection of the genes as the bases of its theory, Gould would probably see the selection of patterns of genes. It is a possible way of reconciliation for both theories.
Emergence raises the question of control. Who controls what exactly in an emergent world? When the rules are not set from top to bottom but are decided locally, and when these rules ultimately determine the choice of those who govern us, this is very unsettling. Seen from this angle, globalisation as a means for oppression in the hands of a few becomes its antithesis: an oppressive tool shaped and controlled by those who claim that they are oppressed, an oppressive tool in the hands of all. Strangely, it is something I have always suspected.
It was overall a very interesting reading. It is clear enough even for those who know very little about computer science or ants. The only downfall is a system of notes that is far from emergent.
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11 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars a little disappointing, 15 April 2003
By 
H. Johns "helenjohns" (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (Paperback)
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 boring fashion) - I would have liked to have had more examples from the natural world and from the social sciences. In this respect, the book is far from being a comprehensive layman's overview of the science of emergent systems, and anyone who is already familiar with the basics will learn little new. I also found the chatty prose laden with references to American popular culture annoying.
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23 of 39 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars No substance, no focus, no "life"......, 5 Nov 2001
By A Customer
Don't waste your time or money with this book, Johnson prattles on about computer games too much for my likening. Emergence is about real life systems, biological, social etc - not second rate video games.
Read the books by Goodwin, Holland and Kauffman - for an introduction I highly recommend Goodwin's "Signs of Life".
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