April 5, 2003 16:05 | Culture / WebBlogging

Emergence: post-anarchy?

Reading the initial chapters of "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" by Steven Johnson, wherein, amongst many other things, he speaks of a young Engels' sojourn in Manchester, England, I am struck by a correlation of political and sociological ideas.

Johnson quotes Engels' apparent half-realisation and mild appallement in seeing what appears to have been an auto-development of social segregation in the urban "un-planning" which occurred in Manchester with the arrival and explosion of the industrial revolution. (Working class and middle class sectors of the city being almost perfectly segregated is not something a budding socialist-cum-marxist finds particularly "well and good", I suppose. However, the fact that it just sort of "happened" without any planning is not lost on the young Engels - he just doesn't see the natural ramifications: emergence in other words. He's just dismayed by it and moves along.)

Ourselves moving along, in the context of the recent thoughts of "Emergent Democracy" by Joi Ito and James F. Moore's "The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head" (though I'd call it "Emergent Superpower" since "second" denotes class/rank, and "emergent" brings with it all the force of it's associated notions), as well as Ito-san's apparent strong desire for Japanese political reform (interesting how this was intended for publication in the South China Morning Post...) I can't help but to think of that other, much maligned political system, communism, and it's role as the usher for Emergent Democracy.

The three major schools of politcal thought of the 20th century - democracy, socialism and communism (marxism) - naturally share, at their roots, the valiant humanistic notion of "the people". All three however are highly corruptible, and in fact at this point are corrupted. Each, in their own way has funneled power right back up to the top, sapping it away from "the people".

There seem to be two main branches of control systems in the world today: decentralized and centralized. I am inclined to say that decentralized is "nature's way": evolution - in all it's forms and applications, be it biological, social, geological, ad infinitum. Emergent behavior is part and parcel of this. I'd go so far as to say that evolution is governed or directed by emergence and environment.

Centralized control on the other hand, seems to be all about an individual's desire to "have it my way". "Having it my way" can be, and essentially is, as simple as having the widest opportunity to procreate (in the animal kingdom, which we are a part of, lest we forget). In the complexity of human affairs, this "will to power" extends to all facets of our lives: interpersonal relationships, society, culture and law (the straight line evolution of political systems).

Forgive the over-simplifications. I am trying to get to my point. :)

Now, take the concepts of Emergent Behavior, coupled with the technology-infused paradigm of Howard Rheingold's "Smart Mobs". Set aside to marinate. Stir up the potent (assumed) desire of over a billion Chinese to shed the last remaining shreds of communism and achieve the human dream of freedom, with unfettered access to mass, instant telecommunications and the global mind (Internet, weblogs, Google). Add an infusion of a centuries old culture of zen and buddhism, as well as an extremely rich phonetic based language. ("Hooked on phonics" is too little too late for us westerners to be on top of what is about to come. We would have had to make stenography compulsory and the de facto mode of written communication generations ago.)

All that is needed is a little bit more unraveling of communism in China and the seed of the notions of Emergent Democracy, and, well... draw your own picture. Here is an added whisper that points to what may very well be.

I think that the Chinese are the real winners in the war on Iraq.  While the United States blows resources on a destructive cause, the Chinese are staying focused on strengthening their core economy.  The United States ties itself up in years of economically and morally-draining occupation of Iraq--while the Chinese stay free and focused. I figure that the war on Iraq probably will hasten Chinese leadership over the US by several years.

Many ideas here to pick apart, presented in my rambling meditation style. An academic, I could never be.


I had better start learning Mandarin ...