Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Thursday, July 12, 2007day link 

 Emergence and democracy
picture Emergence is one of my most favorite subjects. The one I'd maybe most like to figure out. What makes things emerge? Good stuff. Seemingly out of nothing. Here's a definition by Jeffrey Goldstein, from Wikipedia. It is:
the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.
And some common characteristics:
(1) radical novelty (features not previously observed in systems);
(2) coherence or correlation (meaning integrated wholes that maintain themselves over some period of time);
(3) A global or macro "level" (i.e. there is some property of "wholeness");
(4) it is the product of a dynamical process (it evolves); and
(5) it is "ostensive" - it can be perceived.
Excelleeent! More of that, please.

Monday I was taking part in an online discussion organized by Extreme Democracy, around emergence in relation to politics. Sort of poking around in the thought of whether a better and more direct democracy possibly might emerge from the bottom and up. I can't seem to locate a transcript, so I can't quote all the good points.

One of the starting points was Two ways to emerge, and how to tell the difference between them (pdf) by Steven Johnson.

The two types he's talking about, he calls "Clustering" and "Coping". Those aren't very good choices of words, but it is a good observation that there are different kinds.

Clustering would be where a bunch of somethings get together and do the same thing. Like slime mold. Or a flash mob, or other group phenomena where large numbers of people suddenly get excited about one thing or another, and they all show up at the same time, or they do the same thing.

Coping would be where a bunch of individuals get together, and they don't just do one simple thing, but they form a more complex organization. Like an ant hill. The ants specialize, they take on different roles, they solve problems, they change their behavior if necessary, etc. Without anybody handing out the orders.

It is a lot easier to simply get a large number of people together, or to get them together for one well-defined purpose, than it is to get large numbers of people to self-organize towards solving unknown problems.

Somebody suggested the Howard Dean presidential campaign as an example of a bottom-up emergence of the clustering kind. It was a successful attempt of getting a lot of people together in being excited about one thing, organizing their own local meetings to futher it, etc. But it only worked as long as the main point was being excited about Dean being a leading candidate, and as long as things went well. The moment people started being dissatisfied about something, or they wanted to change direction, there was no vehicle for that, and it fell apart rather quickly. It wasn't the Coping kind of emergence. I don't think it really was emergence at all. That a political candidate gets a lot of grass-roots support might be interesting, but it isn't something that emerged from the grass-roots, or it would have been the assembled crowds that told him what to say, rather than him telling them what to be excited about.

A lot of things that might be given as examples of bottom-up self-organization and emergence probably aren't. Or they're very weak examples. If the date and time of the Superbowl broadcast is announced, and millions of people organize parties around it in front of bigscreen TVs, is that self-organization? Sure, it inspires some self-organization, but it is based on something you're provided from the top down. If some big movie or music star is very popular, and their fans organize fan clubs and websites and online forums, is that self-organization? Yes, it is, on a local level, but it isn't a whole lot of emergence. It is a clustering effect based on stimuli provided from a central source, a movie, an album, a TV show, etc.

If a political candidate hears that through the internet one can easily launch thousands of self-replicating self-organizing local support groups, and forums and meetings, etc, he'll say "great!" Saves a lot of advertising dollars. He'll love it exactly until the point where that network of people starts disagreeing with him, wanting him to do something different from what he had in mind. Which is what would happen if it really were some kind of emerging self-organizing democracy. Candidates with a program don't go well together with real bottom-up democracy. Nobody's really seen such a democracy, so that probably isn't entirely obvious.

Anyway, it of course isn't enough to get a whole lot of people together. That's the clustering thing. If one promotes and organizes it well, and one hits the right nerve, one might get 100s of thousands of angry people to show up at the same time and express themselves. But that doesn't necessarily add up to doing something in any organized fashion. For large numbers of people to do something complex together requires a complex organization. The traditional way of doing that is the top-down way. Somebody's in charge, somebody sets the tone, inspires everybody, sets goals, hands out jobs. They delegate some of their power to others, and so forth. It works, but it creates dumb, inflexible, slow organizations.

We sense that something better is becoming available. The networked world. We're all more and more connected, and the world is moving faster and faster, and obviously it is better if decision making is distributed to those who're most involved with whatever decisions need to be made about. So, many organizations are busy trying to develop more flat structures, more networks, more communities, more self-organization. But if we're talking business or government, there's still somebody in charge who largely decides what one should self-organize around.

The very hard problem is how stuff can actually emerge from the bottom and up, how one can self-organize around what emerges, and how that can scale to a bigger size.

Self-organization amongst people can work great in small groups. If your family is going to have a picnic, you'll probably all figure out how to contribute, without anybody having to be in charge. A few dozen people can maybe do that. But can thousands? Or millions?

Could the world possibly work without anybody being in charge? It is sort of a ridiculous idea to expect that a few people can be in charge of governing the world. Sooner or later it will be not just a little ridiculous, but it will become impossible, as the world moves faster and becomes more complex. Sooner or later the answer has to be that it is some kind of emergent self-organizing direct democracy. It isn't just some idealist notion. The alternatives will stop working sooner or later.

But nobody seems to know how, yet. Hopefully the answer will somehow emerge, and be a delightful surprise.

A couple of other excellent papers on the subject are: Emergent Democracy by Joi Ito, and The Second Superpower Rears Its Beautiful Head by James Moore. Both PDFs.
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