Below Steven Johnson talks about emergence at TED in a presentation made in 2003 but made available on the TED site this month. His discussion touches on a number of things that were quite new in 2003–Technorati, the long tail–but are now familiar stuff. What’s particularly interesting to me, however, is his approach toward emergence that looks at what might be termed a kind of human-scale feedback loop in emergent information systems.
What do I mean by that? Well Johnson starts by talking about city neighborhoods and asks, rhetorically, who plans a neighborhood? Traditionally the answer is that no one does, that neighborhoods emerge organically, and that attempts to simulate neighborhoods through planning often end up quite comic, as disneyfied versions of themselves. The organization of the web is likewise an organic process. For the most part, Google search ranks and the long tail linking/popularity pattern are not planned. Johnson ends his talk discussing Dave Sifry’s efforts to shift the system somewhat and since then we have seen any number of attempts to game these search algorithms for monetary or political purposes.
While this has gone on for some time, we haven’t really seen any change in the overall shape of the web. But what we have seen is the development of communities, of neighborhoods. And when we look at city neighborhoods, they may not be planned by a central committee, but they do represent human decision-making that clearly has a coordinated effect. The systematic nature of neighborhoods is shaped local and networked material circumstances, cultural ideology and history, communication patterns, and some idiosyncratic subjective forces (e.g. a particularly charismatic individual).
We ought to see the same thing in online communities, and particularly I’m thinking about the potential for higher educational communities. Of course right now, the model community for higher education learning is somewhere between the gulag and the prison: panoptic with severe restrictions on communication/exchange. The shape of these communities is determined through centralized planning. Why? Because everyone knows how horrible and confusing it is to move between unique neighborhoods, from Chinatown to Little Italy.
So what happens when we open up these possibilities? What happens when we allow for planned emergence along the lines of the neighborhood, the online community, and so on? Are we afraid the higher education learning communities will turn into Facebook? I don’t think anyone wants that, students least of all! They want to get the college out of their Facebook not bring their Facebook practices to their course websites.
This is a kind of emergent planning and we can learn in these neighborhoods and benefit from the richness of learning environments that could never be planned or simulated.