Since the 1970s, scholars in fields as varied as sedimentology, ornithology, sociology, and philosophy have come to understand the importance of self-organizing systems, of how higher-order complexity can “emerge” from independent lower-order elements. Emergence describes how millions of tiny mud cracks at the bottom of a dry lake bed form large scale geometries when viewed at a distance, or how water molecules, each responding simply to a change in temperature, come to form the complex crystalline patterns of a snowflake. Emergence describes how hundreds of birds, each following its own, relatively simple rules of behavior, self-organize into a flock that displays its own complex behaviors, behaviors that none of the individual birds themselves would display. In the words of writer Steven Johnson, emergence describes how those birds, without a master plan or executive leadership, go from being a “they” to being an “it.” In other words, emergence describes a becoming.
We, too, form emergent systems. Emergence describes how a crowd of pedestrians self-organizes to form complex traffic flows on a busy sidewalk. Viewed close-up, each pedestrian is just trying to get to his or her destination without getting trampled, reacting to what’s in front of him or her according to a set of relatively simple behavioral rules—one foot in front of the other. Viewed from above, however, we see a structured flow, a river of humanity. Acting without direction, the crowd spontaneously orders itself into a complex system for maximizing pedestrian traffic. The mass of individual actors has, without someone in charge, gone from being an uncoordinated “they” to an organized “it.” Continue reading