February 26 and March 4, 2004
Emergence: What Its Good For (Maybe)
(the outline of this talk first appeared at http://www.swarthmore.edu/socsci/tburke1/marchemerge.html)
1. Of all the gin joints in all the world, emergence
had to walk into this one, or why the topic interested me
in the first place
GAFOSS: two tribes of australopithecines. Discovering
that I swing both ways
My humanistic impulses: narrative, meaning,
interpretation, experience, consciousness, individual agency,
contingency, unexpected results, respect for unknowability.
A thousand stories in the naked city, and a multitude of truths.
The geographer and the ephemeral flower. Romanticist reaction
to the hubris of hard social science. History as Mr. Toad's
Wild Ride. Down with Utopia.
But: truth matters. Empiricism matters. Reason
matters. The distinction between bad or weak academic work
and good academic work is real and correlates to its rigorous
pursuit of truth; some humanistic inquiry reduces that distinction
entirely to a matter of taste or fashion or power/knowledge.
Social science knows (really knows) things that humanistic
inquiry doesn't and can't know: patterns, structures, regularities,
systems, underlying forces, causality. The content of ethics
is non-arbitrary and meaningfully transhistorical. Material
constraints and social facts on the ground matter. Up with
policy, up with planning, up with the good society.
The histories I want
a history where individual agency is interesting
in and of itself, but where it also meaningfully shapes what
happens at larger scales of human experience-not as typical
or collective or representative, a single example of an absent
corporate whole, but in its individuality and idiosyncracy.
an acknowledgement that unexpected results and
genuine newness appear in human history all the time, but
also the ability to relate what is new to what came before.
(Generative social science tends to make everything interesting
into an externality.)
a history that has room for particularity and
locality without making them into a theoretical fetish object,
an exclusive epistemological choice. Relating particularity
and locality to systematicity and generality without subjugating
either to the other .
a history that does not insist on the equivalence
of initial conditions and later consequences (Marxism's "last
instance": the reducibility of the superstructure to the base;
Freudian psychotherapy's developmentalist history of the individual).
There's reductionism and then there's reductionism. Looking
for the good heuristic kind, rejecting the bad ontological
A good metaphor is good enough. No it's not.
Has emergence solved my problems? Can this
mind be saved?
Not really, but it has helped considerably,
both metaphorically and empirically.
Suggests a new way to talk about the irreducibility
of later conditions to initial conditions while also insisting
that they are always related
Relates small idiosyncratic actions and scales
to large systemic consequences and scales without flattening
particularity and locality
A new way to think about the appearance of novelty
and newness in a system without insisting on total disjuncture
A good metaphor and yet also tantalizingly empirical.
The 2 major sticking points:
The velvet determinism of emergence. (Different
starting conditions, different results; same starting condition,
same results.) Is this an artifact of the relative simplicity
of the models of emergent complexity that we have, or this
an essential feature of the concept?
The problem of scalability, of knowing that
stigmergic effects could be viewed as autonomous agents at
the next level of complexity and yet being unable to encompass
that within any given discussion of an emergent system.
How I'm applying emergence: a new history of
indirect rule in Africa
a. What was indirect rule?
b. Mahmood Mamdani's sensible but terribly wrong idea
c. Robinson and Gallagher's old theory of peripheral causation
and its problems
d. Emergence to the rescue: local actors, systematic results.
The 1890-1910 window. The colonial state as stigmergic.
Why the Grobstein/Burke thought-experiment
on NetLogo and human agents is still important to me
Santa Fe Summer Institute does "Boids" with blindfolded
scales of determinism?
while perhaps human agents acting like turtles
are in turn determined by human brains, human society, the
narrow set of particular expectations they bring to participating
in the exercise, and so on, the boundaries that this 'determination'
places upon them are so capacious that they approach free
will as an approximation. (Wolfram's argument, as I understand
it). And so the systemic results of a rule-based simulation
are potentially wildly different and much more variable than
they are with software agents who must follow all rules.
A cheap way to tackle the scalability issue?
Comparison with the problem of MMOG economies: human agents
in a rule-constrained environment. Is what happens the total
complexity of human beings in a modern society or is the relative
simplicity of the ruleset?
The counter-factual engine: new specs, goals,
Autonomous agents distinct from an environment
Agents have energetic limitations and fixed
Heterogenous population of agents (many different
agents with different rules)
Genetic implementation of agent rulesets (agents
can pass on rules to later agents; rules can be changed
by exchange between agents; ideally, new rules can come
into being through generational transmission and change).
Requires imposition of fitness landscape on agents.
Probablistic execution of rules, in relation
to fitness landscape and environment; e.g., heterogenous
behavior within any given class of agents. Deliberately
imperfect optimization by agents, e.g., probability may
dictate that agent will execute non-optimal rule
Environments where stigmergic effects can
acquire persistent rulesets of their own over time; "scalability
of complexity" up into the environment.
Two test beds: the Atlantic world, 1350-1800
and China and environs 900-1600.
Origins and evolution of the Atlantic system,
especially the slave trade; the "Why didn't China industrialize?"
Problem of setting: neither of these are isolates.
Problem of initial conditions: what classes
of agents, how many, what rules, what fitness landscape
Would episodic or event history be a better
The quixotic goal: comparative quantifying of
contingency through mapping the total possibility space of
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum
and/or at emergent.brynmawr.edu
Participants for September 23, 2003: Jan Trembley, Karen Greif,
Jim Marshall, Tim Burke,
Anne Dalke, Mark Kuperberg, Hannah Wilhelm, Doug Blank, Al Albano,
Paul Grobstein (10)
Participants for September 30: Karen Greif, Jan Trembly, Paul
Grobstein, Jim Marshall, Mark Kuperberg, Doug Blank,
Ted Wong, Anne Dalke, Al Albano, Hannah Wilhelm, Tim Burke, Alan
Baker, Emily Kahoe, Jason Coleman (14)
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Tuesday, 07-Mar-2006 15:45:34 EST