Time for Emergence

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee had his stroke of genius and invented the World Wide Web, he didn’t surely think about its extraordinary present developments, just like a father normally hopes his children’s wellbeing, but he can’t seldom figure out every particular detail of their future. Such a behavior strikes everybody as a strange kind of myopia, like a bewitched gold-digger who stops in front of a slight glow and forgets its source. Even if there could be a strong temptation to believe it, several studies showed that its deep nature is quite different and probably no suitable attitude may avoid it.

The first time I studied the concept of Emergence, I was attending a Complex Systems course at university, and my very first thought was that of a pure “scientific skepticism”: a sparkling description for an idea that had soon gone up in smoke… When I realized its immense strength, by then lots of its new and pervasive implications had already flourished and widespread. There is a moment during the life of concept when a crossroads appears above the horizon: on one hand, a radical change to keep living with a renewed fashion, on the other its stagnation and then, inexorable, a decay towards its death. That’s the right time for emergence: as the whole is greater than its parts, a brand new system state assumes the role of “point of equilibrium far from the only real stable equilibrium”.

According to I. Prigogine’s theory, this kind of reality takes and dissipates external energy in order to maintain a vital, productive condition. The World Wide Web was born as an information sharing tool, nowadays we all are experimenting its natural evolution that was called Web 2.0 and which main difference from its “ancestor” is the meaning of each link; what represented only the possibility to associate several hyper-textual documents, it’s now a road between two microcosmoi made up of people with their knowledge and experiences, services, utilities and much more. Such a phenomenon is hard to be imagined during a design phase because we’re used to getting effects by summing up each single contribution as the inverse logical operation of the same reductionism adopted for the analysis.

It’s not astonishing at all if a similar “technique”, often chosen in Neurosciences, has been ousted after many scientists have accepted emergence as the most plausible explanation of consciousness; in fact, even a brain is a very big network with an enormous connection density and its nodes don’t seem to be able to bring about anything which can be compared to what we call “consciousness”. Only some sort of non-linear interaction may be concerned in the matter as its creative possibilities are (now) theoretically unlimited and the only thing we can do (at the largest scale) is waiting for new, impressive evolution.

A good introductory book about Emergence is Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson.