Nov 28, 2011

Don't Count on Emergence!

You want to know why a single ant is not even a nuisance, while a whole bunch of them gets your attention and a vast number finally builds a complex society? Need an explanation how those few synapses you use to navigate yourself through a bar-conversation becomes a conscious something by sheer numbers? Ever tortured that brain with the question how to overthrow THE world financial system?
Emergence is the answer. Emergence develops to the catch-phrase of the occupy-movement as well as the mantra of some proponents of the network-first!-cooperators. Increase the number of actors (cells, fish, occupiers, collaborators…) and something awesome will happen. How? It will emerge!
The basic idea is good, the concept, however, not really understood. Emergence does not deal with the self-organized creation of something awesome. Emergence at its very roots describes the upscaling of complexity by increasing the number of participants. Thereby the 'language' necessary to describe the system increases with increasing complexity.

A small series of pictures might be instructive. Look at a single ball in an unrestricted space (a). This particle is there, has some properties that might be describable. Add another ball (b). These two fellows can be seen in relation to each other (close, far, beside…). But if you add a third marble (c), there emerges a principally new feature: order. These three elements can be ordered (in a line, a triangle…) or disordered. Order is a property that emerged with increasing number of players. And this order will become more and more complex with more balls in the game - but which order locks in is not predetermined. The complexity emerged, the potentiality emerged, maybe even some capacity… but whether a huge chunk of cells is just that (a huge chunk of cells) or develops into a liver or a brain … this is not warranted by the sheer number.

2 comments: said...

Interesting, Carsten.

Let me see if I understand ..

So would you say that order is a property of a set (or system, or in the bio/social context, an ecosystem) whose domain contains a multiplicity of agents, ie., the set must contain >= 3 members?

And emergence is a process by which that set transitions from a state of no order ('chaos') to order?

You know me, a stickler for semantics and language. And wanting to get the math right too :)


. said...

Good morning, Chris

maybe I was too fuzzy?
The point of this nano-statement on emergence is more fundamental:
With my little cartoon I wanted to emphasize that an increase in number can bring a new 'quality' or a new level of complexity into the game. The language describing one single dot in space is not potent enough to describe many points in space - as, for example, the concept of order/disorder comes into play. It is the concept of order/disorder that emerges with increasing number of agents. A concept that probably could not have been predicted by extrapolating the properties of a single agent.
The *concept* of order/disorder simply does not make sense for one dot in free space. *The concept* emerges with increasing number of actors. Whether the system will finally order or not is not given by this.

Have a good week!