Emergent Systems Are Changing the Way We Think

January 30, 2017  • Joi Ito & Jeff Howe

On Tuesday, the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series will feature MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito discussing his recent book Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future. The conversation will be moderated by Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson and can be livestreamed starting at noon. Below is an excerpt from chapter one of Whiplash.

We once had a very linear notion of how knowledge was produced and disseminated: It originated with God and was divulged to a variety of clerics, prophets, priests, and theocratic leaders, at which point it took the form of dogma (or in a more secular vein, policy) that would be disseminated through antiquity’s version of middle management until it reached a largely unquestioning populace.

This all sounds terribly archaic — redolent of pharaohs and the Old Testament. While we can start to see cracks in this system with Martin Luther and the radical notion that religious truths emerged from a community of brethren rather than from the Church, with a capital C, as a basic pattern of knowledge production, organization, and distribution, the model remained largely unchanged.

Now that system is on the way out; a new system, emergence, is on the way in. Emergent systems aren’t replacing authority. We aren’t going to start policing ourselves, or repairing en masse to lawless communes. What has changed is a basic attitude toward information — its value and its role in channeling the many over the desires and dictates of the few. The Internet has played a key role in this, providing a way for the masses to not only make their voices heard, but to engage in the kind of discussion, deliberation, and coordination that just recently were the province of professional politics. In 2007, a point at which amateur-written blogs were suddenly able to contest the authority of venerable news institutions, Joi wrote a paper online predicting that the Internet was giving rise to a new political phenomenon, a kind of collective intelligence that, like honeybees or other colonial organisms, would possess qualities far beyond the capabilities of a single individual within it. Such “emergent democracy” can be seen in certain aspects of the Arab Spring that roiled Middle Eastern authoritarian governments in 2011, though it sadly failed to move beyond the coup to the creation of a government. The hacktivist group Anonymous — highly potent, yet completely leaderless — may be the purest expression of emergent democracy. Elements of emergent democracy were a prominent feature in the 2016 presidential campaign; one could easily sense that neither Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump “led” their respective movements so much as surfed them, hoping and praying the electorate’s collective id would eventually lead safely back to shore.

The science writer Steven Johnson, whose book Emergence introduced many of these ideas to a general audience, compares the evolution of new ideas to slime mold — a single-celled organism that gathers together to form a kind of super-organism when food is in short supply. How do slime mold cells know to do this, given that they lack a brain? Like ants in a mound, they follow a set of simple rules and leave pheromone trails wherever they go. If enough individual organisms leave the pheromone that says, “I’m starving!” the alarm goes out for all parties to convene at the nearest rotting log. Ideas are no different, Johnson writes. Individual slime mold cells spend most of their lives in isolation, perpetually exploring their immediate environment for food. But when the cells begin to gather en masse the strength of the collective signal triggers the formation of something else entirely, something no slime mold cell planned or can ever even understand. The same phenomenon, Johnson writes, occurs with ideas. “Plug more minds into the system and give their work a longer, more durable trail — by publishing those ideas in bestselling 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.” We are now in the midst of that phase transition — the point at which a solid, say, suddenly melts into liquid, or airborne moisture cools just enough to become a rainstorm.

Emergence is what happens when a multitude of little things — neurons, bacteria, people — exhibit properties beyond the ability of any individual, simply through the act of making a few basic choices: Left or right? Attack or ignore? Buy or sell? The ant colony is the classic example, of course. This meta-organism possesses abilities and intelligence far greater than the sum of its parts: The colony knows when food is nearby, or when to take evasive action, or, amazingly, just how many ants need to leave the colony to forage for the day’s food or ward off an attack.

From the scale of an entire city, humans are just like ants, scurrying to and fro making small-scale decisions without a thought to civic consequences.

Our own brains are another amazing example of emergence. Somehow, approximately one-third of the twenty thousand or so different genes that make up the human genome are expressed in the brain and direct the development of tens of billions of neurons. Each neuron, while relatively complex, isn’t conscious or very smart. Somehow these neurons, when connected, together create an amazing network that is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but is able to be so conscious that we can even think about thinking. While the question of how the brain actually works is still hotly debated, it is clear that thinking and consciousness — the mind — can emerge from networks of less sophisticated parts connected together in the right way.

The natural world abounds in other demonstrations of collective cognitive processes too. Schooling fish, flocking birds, swarming locusts — all display emergent properties. Life itself is an emergent property, the result of molecules — carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids — going about their business. A lipid never turned to a protein and said, “We need to get organized. We should all get together in the form of an awkward, hairless biped named Jeff.” The lipid just wants to store energy or link up with other lipids to create a cell membrane.

Emergent systems aren’t new, of course, and their study goes back to the ancient Greeks. And emergence isn’t just a natural phenomenon. From the scale of an entire city, humans are just like ants, scurrying to and fro making small-scale decisions without a thought to civic consequences. Which in fact is what makes cities such magical environments. No single intelligence could have orchestrated the ferment of the Bywater in New Orleans, or the complex styles of Tokyo’s Shibuya district. The traffic roundabout relies on emergence, as does the continual evolution of human communication. Again, no single mind — except possibly William Shakespeare’s — could create the constant stream of linguistic innovations that cohere into the myriad forms of any single language. The most obvious example of an emergent system created by humans is the economy, which clearly exhibits attributes that no individual could control. We tend to think of markets as little more than the site at which buyers meet sellers to conduct their business. But as Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek observed in a 1945 paper regarded as one of the foundational texts of information theory, markets do something far more valuable: They gather and utilize knowledge which is “widely dispersed among individuals,” Hayek writes. “Each member of society can have only a small fraction of the knowledge possessed by all, and…each is therefore ignorant of most of the facts on which the working of society rests.” The market, in Hayek’s view, is the accidental aggregation machine that humans created in order to “conquer intelligence.”

By Hayek’s reckoning, the price of a stock is the encapsulation of all the information known about that company at any time, compounded by what is understood about the relative stability of the world itself. The stock market was the greatest information system of all time, until the Internet came along. In our own era, the Internet gives billions of people access to the same ability the market has to aggregate vast amounts of information and use it to make informed decisions. As the relative stability of the world itself is derived more and more from the fear or confidence of those billions of people, stock prices have become less linked to the underlying material value of the companies. As a result, fluctuations have become dangerously amplified.

The scientific revolution was a new set of principles, the brainchild of no one and everyone.

But this shift from authority — when organizations charted whatever course those lofty few up on the quarterdeck deemed wise — to emergence, in which many more decisions aren’t made so much as they emerge from large groups of employees or stakeholders of one type or another, is changing the future of many organizations. Having originally greeted the phenomenon with fear and disdain, companies are now realizing that emergent systems may render their services unnecessary. Of course, they may also be exploited for great gain, as we’ve already begun to see.

Comparing the shifting of authority from the Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia — an authoritative collection of experts vs a self-organizing community of bookworms for the common good — is a great indicator of this phase change. In 2005, Nature published a study that revealed that the two were comparable in quality. Since then, we have witnessed the steady ascension of Wikipedia. Capable not only of instantly responding to new information (a celebrity’s death, the onset of hostilities between two rival factions) but fostering dissent, deliberation, and ultimately consensus on how that information should be presented.

Although the Arab Spring uprising and the hacktivist group Anonymous may seem like exceptions in a world still rife with authoritarian power structures, they’re really just discrete, colorful manifestations of a well-established phenomenon. Paradigms, belief systems, prejudices — all exhibit the hallmarks of an emergent phenomenon. An individual can have a breakthrough, but an entire system of ideas, what we called an episteme, these emerge from the multitude, none of them conscious of the act. Gravity is an idea. Isaac Newton, with a hat tip to Galileo, was its author. But the scientific revolution was a gut renovation of mankind’s epistemological beliefs — how we acquire knowledge and justify our beliefs. In short, it was a new set of principles, the brainchild of no one and everyone.

It’s no accident that this newfound fascination with emergent systems has coincided with our current historical moment. We’ve made great progress in understanding how emergent properties evolve in natural systems, which has in turn helped inform how we approach the emergent systems on which we’ve come to so heavily rely. Remember the ants? Two Stanford professors, a computer scientist and a biologist, recently collaborated on a research project studying how ants forage for food. They discovered that ant colonies had effectively invented TCP/IP — the core method by which information is distributed over the Internet — untold millions of years before humans.

That humans unknowingly replicated a pattern already present in nature is not unusual. In fact, the tendency of certain irreducible patterns — the fractal curve that defines the snowflake — to repeat themselves over and over is itself an emergent property. For nearly twenty years we’ve used the language of profound change to describe the growth of the Internet — a “radical” and “revolutionary” new medium. This was not an exaggeration. But it should not surprise us that the growth of the network — the very architecture of which comprises an emergent system of nodes and neurons that defy any obvious, linear order — would have an effect on us at the deepest levels of how we think.

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