Monday, September 20, 2010

Exchange and Emergence, Part 1

By Carl Hunt

In the last few months, we have enhanced the SENDS draft paper “Beginning a Science of Cyberspace” (available elsewhere in the SENDS Substrate) with more refinements about several key processes and outcomes that cyberspace empowers through social interaction. These key processes come from the studies of complex adaptive systems, also called complexity science. The processes include exchange, self-organization and emergence.

Thinking about cyberspace in terms of emergence and the exchange-based interactions that drive emergence allows us to better visualize the changes we experience both individually and collectively as we navigate the future within cyberspace. The concept of self-organization is important because it empowers innovation and new forms of connectivity we could not predict. Part 1 of this blog entry on Exchange and Emergence will focus on exchange and self-organization, while Part 2 will tie these concepts together looking towards emergent behavior.

Let’s start with exchange. To better picture exchange in the age of cyberspace, think about it as follows:

Each node or player within a connected environment such as cyberspace resides on a matrix, although a web would be more appropriate in the age of the Internet; in fact, it is useful to think of the matrix as residing on an underlying web. The matrix accommodates hierarchical form and a position, while the underlying, interconnected web allows the nodes on the matrix virtually unlimited connectivity to any other node. The matrix simply allows us to better visualize the context of the node. Down the vertical axis of this web-enabled matrix, there is a category such as avocation or profession. Across the horizontal axis, there is another category such as age or national origins.

No category will be completely discrete due to the interconnectedness of the web of cyberspace, as well as the widely varying interests of each player (interconnecting node in this example), but the matrix also helps to visualize the process of exchange in cyberspace. Any player in the matrix (due to the underlying web) can interact with any other; new goods, services or information sources may be exchanged among two adjacent, interacting nodes or across interacting nodes elsewhere on the matrix or even to another matrix connected by the same web.

The potential for massive, open-ended exchange is a prime characteristic of cyberspace in terms of interconnectivity that has not existed before. This example does not imply that exchange is a linear relationship between a “buyer” and a “seller.” In fact, exchange is often nonlinear because the value of the outcome is so dependent on individual perceptions and factors external to the exchange. The roles the participants of the exchange are playing during the process are also important.

Since we define exchange simply as giving something in trade for something else, the process itself can hardly be simpler; but the implications can be quite complex. Its simplicity helps to favor its evolutionary success as playing a major function in propagating life both individually and collectively.

The process of exchange that results in the outcome of emergence also enjoys the benefit of another process. Exchange, whether of information, goods or services, provides the fuel for emergence through what is known as self-organized criticality.

Systems that are at the point of self-organized criticality demonstrate emergent behaviors, as documented by complexity scientists Stuart Kauffman and Per Bak (At Home in the Universe: the Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, Oxford, NY, 1995 and How Nature Works: the Science of Self-Organized Criticality, Copernicus, NY, 1996, respectively). In fact, cyberspace acts simultaneously as a medium and a catalyst for self-organization of people and systems, as well as emergence and exchange in ways never before possible.

In Part 2 of this blog on Exchange and Emergence, we’ll look at how emergence itself pulls all of these localized, self-organizing behaviors into a more global, emergent behavior that manifests itself in typically unpredictable ways and what that means in terms of the connectivity cyberspace enables.

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