Sunday, June 06, 2004

Emergence, idea revolutions and networks

I highly recommend Steven Johnson's 2001 book Emergence (Touchstone). It's an easy read, and very informative in bringing the reader up-to-date (as of 2001 anyway) on thinking about emergent behaviors in complex systems.

Anyway, he describes one experiment, a simulation of the behavior of slime mold. Slime mold is a primitive amoebalike organism, related to fungi that acts one way by itself, but takes on entirely different behaviors when it gets together with other slime molds -- even to the point where scientists can "train" the mold to navigate a maze.

Johnson describes how Mitch Resnick, a researcher at MIT, developed a computer program [instance of eletronic instruments of science] to simulate the behavior of slime mold. Slime molds leave a chemical trail that other slime molds can detect, and then alter their behavior accordingly. The length of time that the trail persists will therefore affect the impact of other molds, so these two dimensions -- the number of molds, and the life of the pheromone trail -- will affect the behavior of the slime mold "system."

"Keep the trails short, and the cells few, and the slime molds will steadfastly refuse to come together. The screen looks like a busy galaxy of shooting starts. But turn up the duration of the trails, and the number of agents [i.e. # of slime mold cells - jd], and at a certain clearly defined point, a cluster of cells will suddenly form. The system has entered a phase transition, moving from one discrete state to another, based on the the 'organized complexity' of the slime mold cells." (p63)

Johnson then uses this pattern of behavior -- processes that under certain conditions undergo a phase transition -- a "quantity becomes quality" shift -- to talk about "idea revolutions", when new patterns or ways of thinking -- paradigm shifts -- take place.

"I suspect Mitch Resnick's slime mold simulation may be a better metaphor for the way idea revolutions come about: think of these slime mold cells as investigators in the field, think of those trails as a kind of institutional memory. With only a few minds exploring a given problem, the cells remain disconnected, meandering across the screen as isolated trails that evaporate quickly, the cells leave no trace of their progress -- like an essay published in a journal that sits unread on a library shelf for years. But plug more minds into the system and give their work a longer, more durable trail --by publishing those ideas in best-selling books, or founding research centers to explore those ideas -- and before long the system arrives at a phase transition: isolated hunches and private obsessions coalesce into a new way of looking at the world, shared by thousands of individuals." (p64)

In this second example, the network dimensions are clearer:

-- an existing communication network affects the dispersion of novel ideas. In the case of ideas, access to the network on the production side can be closed, or filtered through editors. On the consumption side, access can be blocked by lack of access to the necessary technology (e.g., illiteracy or no computer) or lack of money and absence of public libraries. Filtering can take place along the network connections, in the form of censorship, or lack of money to put the ideas out. So of course the nature of the communication channels has a tremendous effect in how ideas spread -- the amount of friction in the network that determines how long ideas "persist" if they even see the light of day.

-- new networks may develop to communicate the new ideas, if the existing network is too closed or has too much friction. For example, alternative media networks like IndyMedia.

-- the network of ideas exists within a broader environment. Even in a "frictionless" network, irrelevant, nutty, goofy ideas generally will not gain traction; or be sidelined amongst a cultish few. So the paradigm shifts that do occur -- setting aside periods of mass delusion, manias, etc. -- are enabled by some broader consciousness (enabled by new tools of science) that has some relevancy or correspondence to new discoveries.

-- networks undergo phase transitions in their process of growth (quantity becomes quality, as in the case of the ideas gaining popular currency), but this should be distinguished from the overthrow of one law system by another (quality replaces quality, regime change in the world of ideas or world outlook).


No comments: