Monday, September 20, 2010

Exchange and Emergence, Part 2

By Carl Hunt

What of emergence? We posit that emergence is an outcome based on processes and interactions between local nodes (particularly within a social context as it applies to cyberspace), and that this emergence can only be observed in the results of interactions. In hierarchical terms, an emergence is observed “one (approximately) level” above the interacting nodes or components. Biologist Harold Morowitz notes that emergence is manifested in “novel behaviors,” based on properties of the system or whole. “They are novelties that follow from the system rules but cannot be predicted from properties of the components that make up the system,” Morowitz writes (The Emergence of Everything, Oxford, NY, 2002).

In nature, Morowitz continues, emergence is a pruning action leading to the rise of the actual from the possible, and that these rules of nature that accommodate emergence are among the least understood of any science, but will in fact “be a major feature of the science of the future.” To reach its full potential, the Science of Cyberspace will have to make progress in helping us understand emergence and how we might better “predict” it. For that reason alone, emergence must be considered one of the two critical components to explore in this new discipline. The role that self-organizing criticality plays in these emergences is also important to consider, particularly in the massive connecting environment of cyberspace.

Individuals and collectives are connected more deeply, synchronously and asynchronously, and capable of generating more shared knowledge than at any point in the past. Consequently, the processes of exchange have evolved through the maturing of a set of rules and the interactions between “local” socio-technical “nodes” increasingly accommodated by connectivity that cyberspace now makes possible. In emergence, local nodes interact according to their own rules to create a global behavior, where such behaviors are typically very difficult to predict as explained by Morowitz.

Exchanges of information, goods and services take place more rapidly and through more connections than thought possible even a generation ago. A significant consequence of this new level of connectedness is that we lack an understanding of what this exchange-based “social” nature of cyberspace means to our recent history and all other forms of science and technology – we simply have not sufficiently studied cyberspace and the hyper-connectivity it empowers.

Connected collectivity, a concept dated to at least the early studies of physics and biology, changes things and produces cascading effects in many aspects of life we do not yet appreciate. It took decades and centuries to work out the sciences of the physical environments as we understand them today and we expect it will take many years to do the same for cyberspace.

Connected collectivity describes a characteristic of cyberspace related to shaping the environment through relevant network connections (people and organizational networks vice computer networks). As an example, cyberspace enables emergent “basins of attraction” that pull relevant thought or key people in potentially desired directions without human intent or interaction – it can be very subdued in appearance.

Stuart Kauffman described the interactive essence and outcome of this notion of collected connectivity. In Kauffman’s model, visualize randomly picking up two buttons and connecting them with a thread. Continue to randomly pick up buttons and connect them, and eventually buttons will surface that are already connected to one or more buttons. Before long, the majority of buttons are connected in one large “collective” and around the ratio of 0.5 threads to buttons, a phase transition occurs in which there is a single, very large connected collective of buttons.

Through these random processes of connecting (that could just as easily take place through exchanges), emergent structure forms through simple rules.

One of this larger collective’s dynamics is to connect and enable exchange and interactions that were not possible before the phase transition began, thus the emergent structure of the connectedness itself is a significant feature of connected collectivity. This is a powerful concept that drives much of the work in contemporary network (e.g., graph) theory (see for example, Barabasi, Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else, Penguin, NY, 2003).

The study and modeling of emergence will be essential to understand connected collectivity because its structure can be so transparent as to be invisible to conventional network thinking.
If emergence can ever be controlled and thus predicted, it likely will be through better understanding and articulation of the rules of exchange and the interconnecting frameworks that empower the process of exchange and self-organizing criticality. The effects of these rules on emergence are filtered through many other factors within cyberspace that may or may not be controllable (or even knowable), but the rules we could uncover and with which we could experiment are primarily man-made or natural laws and thus potentially observable and capable of contributing to a better understanding of emergence.

The observance of emergence must be a fundamental object of study within this new science. Bak said that emergence is essentially the outcome of interactions where the results “are not observable consequences of the underlying dynamical rules.” Put another way by Morowitz: “Emergence is the opposite of reduction. The latter tries to move from the whole to the parts…The former tried to generate the properties of the whole from an understanding of parts.” Exchanges, self-organization and emergence thus offer us insightful clues as to what we should seek to explain and predict in this new science of cyberspace.

This is thus an important driving factor behind why we should do SENDS and why we so greatly need a “Science of Cyberspace.” Look for a graphic depiction of these concepts soon, right here in these blogs…

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