Chrissy's Reviews > Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

Emergence by Steven Johnson
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's review
Jan 26, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: science, non-fiction, cognitive-science, systems-theory
Read from January 29 to 31, 2012

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 reiteration of clever metaphors the author uses so persistently that they cease to be clever, a lacklustre tour of the tech industry in the early 2000's (filled with the embarrassing techno-web-whatever buzzwords that permeated the scene at the time), and a set of altogether too optimistic predictions for the internet, media, and emergence "by 2005".

The four star rating is for that first half of the book, which I will pretend is the entire book.

Johnson explores the phenomenon of emergence on scales as diverse as ant colonies, cities over centuries, the internet, news and media corporations, media consumption trends and communities, video games, and of course, the brain.

The fifth star for the half of this book that I am treating as the imaginary whole was forfeited to bad, sloppy, lazy neuroscience. Infinitely more could have been done in this section, and done better, if the reader is to accept the proposition that the human brain is an example of emergence. Johnson flirts with Hofstadter-esque notions of consciousness, again sloppily, without ever getting up the balls to propose them outright. And then he just finishes and moves on.

The single most interesting application of the idea of emergence: that for all our sense of a unified self controlling our thoughts and actions, we are little more than a colony of neurons connected on very local scales...... to which he devotes maybe 10 pages before talking for an entire chapter about Will Wright and the Sims games.

The cognitivist core of my heart is sad and disappointed. But excited nevertheless. ONWARDS, TO MORE BOOKS ABOUT EMERGENCE!
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Reading Progress

01/29/2012 page 73
25.0% "Intellectually exploding all over this while I work on my masters thesis and plan my future dissertation project. SCIENCE."
05/16/2016 marked as: read

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