Thoughts on Emergence

That’s funny. I don’t feel emergent. Or slimy. Or moldy. How people on the Web are just like slime molds…

My latest muse is emergence. My post on emergent features demonstrates that. What it doesn’t demonstrate, however, is my strong belief that in the very near future we’ll see many more features displaying emergent behavior. This will mostly come in the way of popularity aggregators, as Robin Good has called them. Examples include trendalicious, popular, NYTimes most emailed articles…you’ll start noticing them everywhere.

Yesterday while in a Barnes and Noble in Peabody, MA I took a look at the book Emergence by Steven Johnson (one of Amazon’s Best of 2001). In it, Johnson talks about the study of slime molds, which appear to display the behavior of a single organism despite being made up of many, many smaller ones.

One of the earlier theories as to how this happens is a theory in which there are many “controller” organisms spread throughout the mold that have more authority than others. When they give orders, the group responds. As Johnson humorously points out, though, the only problem with this theory is that there was no evidence of it: nobody could find a “controller” organism.

It turns out that the organisms do take cues from each other, and “messages” spread throughout the mold. All the organisms are equal, though, so it’s still hard to tell how the organisms make “decisions” about what to do. It occurred to me that this is exactly how humans learn. We watch what others do, and imitate it. Then, we see consequences and alter our future behavior.

In the beginning of any new endeavour, however, we repeat this process. Without experience, or anything else to go on, we simply mimic what others do. Or, being careful not to “copy”, we alter very slightly what we’ve seen others do, thus making it our own. We do it in our own style, but we sure as heck didn’t create the whole of it!

Thus the rise and success of popular things. And popularity aggregators. Look for more of them in the future: after all, everybody’s doing it.

Published: April 8th, 2005