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

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  3,364 ratings  ·  266 reviews
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. Explaining why the whole is sometimes smarter than the sum of its parts, Johnson presents surprising examples of feedback, self-organization, ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published September 10th 2002 by Scribner (first published August 28th 2001)
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Dec 23, 2012 marked it as to-read
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
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
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
Orton Family Foundation
Aug 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 09, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Bob Nichols
The inside flap of the book cover summarizes the book well: "Emergence is what happens when an interconnected system of relatively simple elements self-organizes to form more intelligent, more adaptive higher-level behavior. It's a bottom-up model; rather than being engineered by a general or a master planner, emergence begins at the ground level." Johnson's book identifies this phenomenon as the principle of emergence. It operates like Adam Smith's invisible hand or, otherwise, like some sort o ...more
B. Rule
Johnson selects really interesting topics for his books. Both this and his book on neuroscience, "Mind Wide Open", are about fundamentally important and fascinating subjects with far-reaching implications. However, in both cases, the finished product remains somewhat dissatisfying.

This volume starts with a lot of promise, as Johnson describes the results of emergence in various contexts, like ant colonies, slime mold aggregation, the organic growth of cities, SimCity, and neuroscience. I got exc
May 16, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Once in a while i come across books that challenge you to think differently and connect the dots between seemingly unrelated subjects. This book is one among them. I like the way how ants, slime mold, cities and distributed software are related. I like the idea of how simple systems by following simple rules can become complex organized systems. It gives a good idea about how feedback loops will change or already changing the software industry and AI.
One minor setback on the book is some storie
Ade Bailey
Apr 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
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. ...more
Florin Pitea
Jul 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: until-2022
Superb. Recommended.
Nov 10, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not bad for a pop science ideas book but a bit dated. I would look for something more recent on complexity and emergence, much must have happened in the twenty years since this was published.
Nov 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
Mainstream media meets complex adaptive systems in this book. The publishing industry continues to fuel the growth of popular science with titles like Emergence. I'm all for the growth of science titles, but the price comes at the increase in the number of watered-down, easy-to-digest material you'll find in bookstores. With the explosion in books written on the topic of complex adaptive systems, I found it difficult to choose a single book in the category. With little restraint, I dove in.

Dan Pfeiffer
Dec 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Published in 2001 but still holds up well today in its discussion of the subject of emergence and self organization. It briefly touches on the possibilities of emergent patterns brought to bear on an expended layer of networked items such as appliances and their learned ability to "read minds" which results in some event or action to be taken. An idea more recently discussed the book, "Enchanted Objects." Sensor-driven networked objects will require self organizing system constructive abilities ...more
Tammie Painter
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was ok
I normally love watching Steven Johnson thread his way through a set of topics and knit them together to show how they're all connected, but for me this book just ended up feeling like a bunch of knots.

The book starts out well with a look at any colonies running smoothly without any master control and he sort of uses that as an example for how our brains and cities work, but the argument seemed slim. About midway through the book he starts wandering off on several other tangents that don't feel
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
Sep 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
The book tells a fascinating story of how systems emerge. Johnson presents a wide range of situations where complicated actions develop with no developer or planner leading the process. There are rules which form the basis of the productions. For example birds flying together with intricate moves do not have a leader. Johnson brings clarity to the emergence, although mysteries abound, with examples in our own brains and in our computers. He has a light and friendly touch as he evolves this tale.
Paul Barnes
Jan 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business, evolution
One of my all-time favourite books. The first, but similar to Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist" and Tim Harford's "Adapt", all of which have made clear to me the role of order emerging in a bottom-up, unplanned way. Great humility when I made my living at the time in corporate planning.

Johnson, like Malcolm Gladwell,, Michael Lewis and Tim Harford is an expert at weaving knowledge into a great story, which really helps to make it stick.
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.
Jul 03, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: emergence
I liked the book alot... but somehow I guess I was hoping for more than quick overviews of related topics and was looking for more in-depth details. Lots of good quotes though, and he mentioned many other books which have also now been added to my "to-read" shelf. ...more
Jul 07, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
He presses his finger to his temple, and raises a Spockish eyebrow: 'Hmmmm. Fascinating.' ...more
Josh O'Berski
Jan 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The universe is a little like your brain which somewhat like a city which is kind of like ants which are a bit like slime mold which is not as insulting as it sounds.
May 14, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: natural-world
Nabeel Hamdi in his book on development constantly refers to the idea of emergence, which he draws from this book by Steven Johnson. Another bit of pop science applied to the world and I wasn't too sure I wanted to read it. Somehow I was convinced by its shortness, and the blurb from J.G. Ballard - 'Exhilarating'.

This is a bit Ballardian. Though it has no car crashes, sharp angles or sex symbol references.

In August 2000, Toshiyuki Nakagaki announced he had trained slime mould to travel the faste
Paul Duplantis
Apr 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
From a book I am working on titled Elevating the Human Connection where I dedicate a section to this book (not a final draft).................

Emergent Connections
In Steven Johnson’s book titled Emergence, Mr. Johnson uses the decentralized command structure of ant colonies to demonstrate his point on the value of emergent systems, detailing how ant colonies never receive instructions from the queen ant but rely entirely on each other through the sharing of chemical pheromones left by each ant.
Jamie Smith
Nov 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Some of the ideas in this book can lead you so far down the rabbit hole you might not be able to return – at least, not return as the same person you were when you went in. On some level we can grasp the astonishing order-out-of-chaos phenomenon that is an ant hill or a termite mound. We can make the intellectual leap to cities and political movements organizing themselves from the bottom up. But can we see ourselves, our conscious minds, as little more than localized, semi-autonomous systems th ...more
Sep 21, 2017 rated it liked it
Read with a 15+ year retrospective, Johnson's 2001 predictions are sometimes amusing and more often strangely prescient. He's more or less right on everything from the future of TV ("The entertainment world will self-organize into clusters of shared interest, created by software that tracks usage patterns...") and news ("The Daily Me ... compiled by tracking the interests and reading habits of millions of other humans."), to the polarization of public opinion and the sensationalization of media ...more
Mar 23, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of these books that will get you introduced to an idea and hooked on a particular subject and which you can forget thereafter. As of early (2017) the perception of the emergence phenomenon re-emerged, probably due to a buzz around AI and big data (after all aren’t we all now playing role of agents in a self-amplifying system?). Hence, going over a bit chatty, repetitive and at places patchy and rather shallow coverage of ants colonies, genetic programming, evolution, urban planning, language ...more
Feb 10, 2021 rated it liked it
This was a fun blast from the past. Written in 2001, Johnson was writing his second book about the bubbling, boiling tech scene. He makes a few good predictions, which I prodded him about on Twitter- namely that he predicted Twitter would be a shithole.

I think that Johnson kind of confuses a few concepts here. Ants and cities certainly have emergent behavior. So does software that is designed around the same principle, namely: distributed agents following simple rules create large scale pattern
Apr 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: john-buck
Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (Paperback)
by Steven Johnson
from the library

from the library computer:
Table of Contents
Introduction: Here Comes Everybody!
The Myth of the Ant Queen
Street Level
The Pattern Match
Listening to Feedback
Control Artist
The Mind Readers
See What Happens

Booklist Reviews

Johnson makes sense of the cutting-edge theory of emergence, exploring the ways intell
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Considering that ants acting on their own appear to have intelligence when observed as a colony, emergence is when actions on a small level emerge as another concept when observed on a higher scale. The author applies this to human cities where merchants acting on their own appear to create cities that were organized in a certain way, and do games like SimCity emulate this? Considering that intelligence emerges from billions of tiny human neurons, will computer intelligence also emergence from b ...more
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Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of twelve books, including Enemy of All Mankind, Farsighted, Wonderland, How We Got to Now, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You.
He's the host of the podcast American Innovations, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. Johnson lives in Marin County, California,

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