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Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
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Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

3.95 of 5 stars 3.95  ·  rating details  ·  1,904 ratings  ·  167 reviews
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK

A VOICE LITERARY SUPPLEMENT TOP 25 FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR

AN ESQUIRE MAGAZINE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

In the tradition of Being Digital and The Tipping Point, Steven Johnson, acclaimed as a "cultural critic with a poet's heart" (The Village Voice), takes readers on an eye-opening journey through emergence theory and its applications. Explai

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Paperback, 288 pages
Published September 10th 2002 by Scribner (first published August 28th 2001)
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Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. HofstadterChaos by James GleickEmergence by Steven JohnsonThe Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas TalebLinked by Albert-László Barabási
Complexity
3rd out of 34 books — 36 voters
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver SacksOutliers by Malcolm GladwellMusicophilia by Oliver SacksThe Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Radiolab Suggested Readings
28th out of 178 books — 179 voters


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Community Reviews

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Carol.
Every now and then I start reading and realize "this book is going to change how I think."

Its a little bit scary and a lot of bit exciting.

While I know--I know--I picked this up because I thought it was about disease, Emergence has proved far more interesting and satisfying than I could hope. Emergence's premise is about networks and 'organized' behavior that develops from a lower-level to a more sophisticated one. In one sense, this is a very real snapshot of the history of thinking/science cap
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Chrissy
In my mind I've split this book into two halves: the half that is severely fascinating, opening doors for me to think about emergence on new scales and inspiring me to contemplate how I could build a model of memory with the principle at its core-- memory as a decentralized, locally interconnected, self-organizing network of instances. I could do that. And I owe the complete absorption of my thoughts with the idea to Johnson and his fascinating first few chapters.
The other half of the book is a
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Orton Family Foundation
Some would call me indecisive, fickle, foolish, or a good candidate for Ritalin, given my tendency to engage in many disciplines at once. Even now, with a masters degree in environmental science, I am plotting an eventual return to school for an MFA, or MBA, or MEd, or perhaps just some PhDs. I prefer to think of myself as a generalist, however, in the great tradition of cockroaches, crabgrass, Leonardo DaVinci and Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Indeed, I love finding connections between elements as ...more
Aaron
I enjoyed this book and then I didn’t. Emergence starts out as a field guide to the idea of emergence and how it crosses all kinds of disciplines. This is the best part. But the bulk of the book, written in Wired Magazine-style gee-whiz-techster prose, is devoted to computer programming and the author going on and on about what he thinks is and isn’t emergence. Tedious.

Also, if any book could benefit from a thorough soaking in Austrian economics, this is it. Hayekian notions of dispersed inform
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Henry
More stuff emerges from the cloud of gas
Sometimes the cloud turns into an insect
Sometimes the insects turn into brains
Sometimes the brains go to French raves
Steve Diamond
The first couple of chapters were well written and gave an interesting historical account of the antecedents of complexity theory. But when Johnson begins to cover more current research (and remember, this was published in 2001), the writing bogs down, becoming very repetitive and often pedestrian. By the time he gets to speculating about the future, near the end, it's not really worth reading. Except for some ungrounded flights of fancy, it doesn't get much beyond envisioning sites like Goodrea ...more
John
An interesting look at the new discipline of Complexity science, and a subtle jab at the idea of reductionism as the only way to understand the universe. Johnson, a columnist for Discover, looks at the phenomenon of Emergence as it takes new forms. Starting from the idea of slime molds and ant colonies, both of which are collectives made up of not particularly "intelligent" individual parts that do pretty amazing things as a collective, to brain cells (again not particularly amazing on their own ...more
Abailart
See my brief review of "Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos". This book began to flesh out for me the fascinating area of emergence as a phenomenon. This shows how individual items (e.g. ants) combine to make a super-organism that 'has a mind of its own', and how in our human lives such a thing as a city emerges as the product less of planning than of dynamic interaction. Recommended as a fertile introduction to complexity theory and emergence.
Jim
I gave this book to my lab members shortly after it came out. A fascinating synthesis of ideas and examples that lead to a very powerful conclusion: highly complex phenomena can emerge from simple rules executed by multiple elements. A great read, and rich with implications for our lives and our world.
Adrian Fridge
Using sociology, biology, engineering, and more, Emergence masterfully expels the notion of centralized governing. A 5-star book held back by its own datedness (2001).

Why this book is awesome: "In the simplest of terms, [emergent systems] solve problems by drawing on masses of relatively stupid elements, rather than a single, intelligent 'executive branch.'" It's an entire argument for why it's okay to be stupid because together we can do smart things.

For example, contrary to popular belief, ant
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Nathanimal
He presses his finger to his temple, and raises a Spockish eyebrow: 'Hmmmm. Fascinating.'
Jp
I really liked this book but I have to take off one star because I was left wanting.

The author uses a number of examples that are interesting, but he does not expand enough (for me) on the theories of complexity and emergence. It's more of a light, but interesting, read than a truly informative book for someone who wants to learn more about complexity theory and emergent properties of systems.

I'm not suggesting it should have been a complexity theory textbook, but a little more description of th
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N
1) ''Like any emergent system, the city is a pattern in time. Dozens of generations come and go, conquerors rise and fall, the printing press appears, then the steam engine, then radio, television, the Web---and beneath all that turbulence, a pattern retains its shape: silk weavers clustered along Florence's Por Sanata Maria, the Venetian glassblowers on Murano, the Parisian traders gathered in Les Halles.''

2) ''There are manifest purposes to a city---reasons for being that its citizens are usua
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Alex Johnson
So I have finally finished this book. It took a long time to read, not because it is not engaging, but because I have been busy.

The best way to describe it is via his first example. He describes how ants follow a simple set of rules. The are as thick as pig shit, yet ant colonies manage to function in an incredibly sophisticated and highly organised fashion. This is because the individual ants have evolved to follow a simple set of rules which, when thousands of them are all following them, amou
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Keya
meh... a lil too much concrete info for my liking

climax stage == carrying capacity

p154
+/- feedback
structured randomness
neighbor interactions
decentralized ctrl

revolution of applied emergence
evolution of social media

pattern matching
- feedback
ordered randomness
distributed intelligence

204-205 climax of the book - explains why he picked & chose the systems he selected for subtitle

233
one kind of decentralized intelligence (the human brain) grasps a new way to apply the lessons of another decentral
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Elizabeth
from the library
from the library computer:

Table of Contents
Introduction: Here Comes Everybody!
PART ONE
The Myth of the Ant Queen
PART TWO
Street Level
The Pattern Match
Listening to Feedback
Control Artist
PART THREE
The Mind Readers
See What Happens
Notes
Bibliography
Acknowledgments
Index


Booklist Reviews

Johnson makes sense of the cutting-edge theory of emergence, exploring the ways intelligent systems are built from small, unintelligent elements without control from above. Johnson is
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Andrew
This is a popular science book about the concept of emergent behaviour, which is an aspect of many different fields of science and social science, including artificial intelligence, neuroscience, biology and even town planning.

The idea is loosely based on the concept of an ant colony. An emergent system has many thousands of small, simple units which by themselves perhaps only are capable of a few different actions. However these units (which may be neurons, bits of software, insects, birds in f
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Jeff Brown
I've read a couple of other books by this author & found them quite good ("The Ghost Map" and "The Invention of Air" - both of which I recommend highly). But this book was disappointing. He chose to focus almost exclusively on two things to discuss emergent behavior - cities and the internet. He particularly focused on the internet where the discussion was more along the lines of futuristic cheerleading than interesting discussion (and the 10 years since the book was published have not been ...more
Corey
A very interesting survey of the phenomenon of bottom-up, disorganized organization that we see in multiple areas of life, anywhere from the molecular level to society as a system to computer gaming. Johnson, who doesn't seem to have academic credentials in all the areas about which he writes, provides a survey of the ways in which life self-organizes based on feedback, rather than having an authority structure as had been previously assumed. For example, he details research done with ants and h ...more
Dolly
May 14, 2013 Dolly rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of nonfiction
I put this book on my to-read list almost five years ago and I'm just now getting to it. It really goes to show how fast technology and information changes, as I noticed several dated bits of information throughout. Some of the technology references, such as Simcity and Zelda are almost nostalgic at this point, but his points are still valid, and perhaps even more so today. The narrative is very readable and although the author gets quite technical in parts, I thought it was fairly easy to under ...more
Michael
As of late, “Emergence” seems to be the hottest buzz word tossed around the crit spaces and seminar rooms of my chosen discipline. Thus it was important that I finally read something about just what the hell the term means. As usual, the unflagging Johnson never fails to enthrall. Who can deny the power of such observations as, “in the case of the Middle Ages, we can safely say that the early village residents shat themselves into full-fledged towns.”? He occasionally descends into the hackneyed ...more
Giedra
Very interesting "social science" book about the theory of emergence and how the intelligence of social insects is similar to how certain features of cities arise, and how increasing understanding of these phenomena may influence software development and the way we live.

It's already almost 10 years old, so it was interesting to see how some of the author's predictions about video games or the internet have or have not come to pass......and to speculate on the reasons for this.

As I read this, I
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P. Es
Nesting, like the point preexisting, but "coming about" where the stairs meet their users at Hogwort's. The opening of Akira/noosphere/A fudgey, vague notion of a sea of White Knowledge (appropriated usage of the term by Gaiman in "Neverwhere", as I've never read a Pratchett novel), comprise of increasingly complex (generally speaking, or such in the attribute of 'general'), and more recent residue of human thoughts, maxims, formulations, equations, data, information, knowledge, etc., that has f ...more
Charlie
Mar 30, 2010 Charlie added it
Shelves: didn-t-finish
I didn't actually finish this book. I got about halfway through before deciding to give up. The book opens really well. I really enjoyed the chapters about ants, slime mould and the history of computer modelling of life. I started to have issues with the chapter about cities. He seems to completely overlook the fact that cities are and always have been subject to huge amounts of central planning. Where I had real issues with this book were with the chapters about the internet and news. This book ...more
Matthew
My only nitpick: Chapter 6 gets a little into the territory of "let me make some predictions of how this framework will be implemented future," which is maybe a little overenthusiastic and is already getting a little stale for a book published ten years ago. See also: the various mentions of Napster making record companies nervous and the eager anticipation for The Sims Online.

Those spots aside, the book is very wonderful, and for me was a great introduction to a really fascinating topic I plan
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James
Johnson's book would have rated higher with me had I read it in 2001 instead of 2008 - it just hasn't aged well; my 2-star ranking splits the difference between the 3 (or even 4) I would likely have given it when brand new and the 1 it (might) deserve today.

The first two chapters were interesting for the connections drawn between different kinds of self-organizing systems, but after that he just kept repeating himself. Or, even more precisely: after that, the things he had to say that were still
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Ruby
The neat thing about reading this book in 2014 is it was written right on the cusp before things like Facebook and Youtube existed, but describes the technology of the time that lead right into their creation. It didn't read as outdated, even though you know now that what he was predicting came not too many years after, and have, indeed, become daily parts of life for anyone with access to basic computer technology.
Steven
A bit dated now, but still very good. It was actually surprising how on-target Steven Johnson was in some of his forecasts. It was funny that he had to spend a few paragraphs explaining what Tivo was and how it worked, also that at the time there was a competing brand called Replay. But he was pretty accurate in the effect the technology would have on media broadcasting. He also predicted based on the Seattle WTO protests that more and more protest movements would be leaderless. For fans of John ...more
Michael Spiegel
Some interesting ideas are covered in this book but the editor was simply asleep at the while. A new topic will be introduced on some page n, such as the media coverage of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, and then it will take at least ten pages for the author to get around to making his point. Also, every instance of emergence can be reduced to either a slime mold or Sim City.
Andrew Frueh
The content of Emergence is interesting, fascinating even. The trouble is mostly with how it is organized. The book has an almost stream-of-consciousness quality to it. Or perhaps it would be more apt to say that the book is organized somewhat like one of the emergent systems Johnson is describing. It's a variety of topics and concepts all loosely tied together around a similar idea. Organizational flaws aside, there is some very intriguing and thought-provoking material here. From the idea of o ...more
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name.

Steven Johnson is the author of the bestsellers Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good For You, and Mind Wide Open, as well as Emergence and Interface Culture. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites—most recently, outside.in—and writes for Time, Wi
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More about Steven Johnson...
The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life Everything Bad is Good for You The Invention of Air

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