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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 2 July 2004
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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on 27 September 2002
Emergence is a simple concept (order being 'created' out of apparent disorder and simple rules creating apparently amazing complexity). However, I found 'Emergence' repetitious (how many times can one person say that an ant leaves pheromone trails?) and lacking in any meaningful detail. This was exacerbated by the lack of any pictures or diagrams to describe the more complex concepts and add additional depth. To be fair, additional information was provided in the notes section at the back of the book. However, as the main text did not refer to whether there was an additional note for the section you were reading it was pretty much useless (unless you like flipping to the back of the book hoping for references). Reference numbers were invented for a very good reason.
Overall a disappointing, overly simplistic read.
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on 1 April 2002
This book starts out OK as an introduction to emergent systems, but fades away rather. The last two or three chapters in particular could have been compressed and something more substantial added. I would also have liked to see more on the mechanisms of how emergent behaviour ... well, emerges. If I thought about it any longer I'd only give it three stars.
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on 22 August 2002
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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on 7 April 2014
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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on 22 June 2009
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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on 14 October 2002
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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on 7 March 2003
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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on 15 April 2003
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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on 5 November 2001
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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