Grasping the Slender Thread of Emergence

I’ve noticed recently that many of my peers speak casually of emergence, or describe something as being emergent. I can usually process their comments by context, even if I can’t use the word myself. At one point, I explored the word, but it didn’t stick more than loosely (supporting that context I’d been skating by with), so I decided today after the Nth encounter to seek some clarity. It’s not an easy term to sort out; even Wikipedia was not a lot of help (at one point the entry acknowledges the difficult in providing a definition).

But let me try and offer some sort of definition myself. This will help me “own” the word and may be of use to the three other people out there that don’t have emergence in their vocab!

Something is emergent when it is the seemingly unexpected and unpredictable outcome of a large number of smaller and simpler things (actions, items). If you put one brick on top of another, those small steps lead eventually to a tower. This is not emergence, because those small actions (one brick atop another) are intended to and obviously linked to the final result. But if everyone who is reading this right now takes their arms and goes like this (imagine a gesture) and a humming sound fills the earth, that is emergence.

The result of all that gesturing is unexpected. The collective gestures are a complex system with unintended consequences and side-effects (that’s the jargon money shot).

Animal behaviors are oft-cited examples. Each bird in a flock isn’t creating a flock, they are just doing their individual activity and it leads, somehow, to a flock. The Internet is another example where we can see weird things happen from a million small behaviors (putting up a site, establishing a node on a network).

Hey, if you’ve got more or can correct any of this, please go for it. That’s just my take on it!


About Steve