Friday, December 30, 2011

Overview of the principle of emergence



"Where do we come from?

What are we?

Where are we going?"

                                                                                                            -Paul Gauguin-


Out of chaos and complex systems comes emergence.

All that we are on this planet comes from the fusion that occurred in a large sun or suns billions of years ago. The idea of emergence seems to be a fundamental principle of the universe. From what I’ve read about in the sciences, emergence is the thread that links all of our observations as humans in science together as a unifying principle. Given time and more emergence it could prove scientifically where we come from, what we are, and where we are going.
This unifying principle of science can be applied to all the sciences and helps to form linkages to a overall view of our place in the universe. In all of the sciences, emergence of greater complexity is the underlying principle of emergence, both complex and chaotic systems create greater complexity.
As complex systems and chaos form emergence we also have a good answer to entropy. Entropy has been a basic principle that everything decays. Entropy is the principle that things are slowly degrading in the universe or a form of collapse. Emergence in many ways argues that emergence is occurring during this process and that as entropy occurs more complex systems emerge. One can then conclude that emergence is why we are here and chaos and complex systems occur out of entropy.
This blog will apply the basics of emergence to our complex world to address a number of social issues in layman terms. I am not a scholar working in this field, but I have had the opportunity to discuss and read at length about many of the sciences, social problems and movements of our contemporary world. It has been rewarding to find out about this new view of emergence that can be found as emerging in all the fields of science and complex social systems. However I am concerned that the rate of change is occurring so fast that the complex foundation of systems that exist will have trouble adapting fast enough to the emergence of newer complex technologies.

The internet is a prime example of a new complex system that has emerged from the computer sciences. The effect of the internet has been profound for everyone on the planet and has ushered in a new information age. Adapting to this new complex system is a challenge for anyone who has been a part of it. The rate of change is staggering. I was asked at a luncheon in early 2000 if I thought the internet was like fire or cb radios. About half the group at that time felt that it was like the cb radio a fad. I was surprised because, nothing in my life has made me realize what a profound effect the internet would have on everyone. Much like the industrial revolution at the turn of the 20th century the information age will have as profound if not greater effect on the world than the industrial age.
One basic thing seems clear with the internet - that the nature of change itself is changing. Joseph A Shumpeter an economist coined the term creative destruction. This is the idea that nothing is stationary. “Life goes on in a social and natural environment which changes and by its change alters the data of economic action: this fact is important and these changes (wars, revolutions, and so on) often condition industrial change, but they are not its prime movers. Nor is this evolutionary character due to a quasi-automatic increase in population and capital or to the vagaries of monetary systems.” I would conclude that the emergence of the internet has the ability to radically change the very nature of how the world works on a fundamental economic level as well as forms of information, research and ones personal freedoms. Creative destruction maintains that our basic economic system is always favoring the destruction of the old ways in favor of simpler more cost effective ways of providing for what we need. This is profound emergence. A simple idea of linking personal computers together for economic and informational exchange of every type will have staggering consequences.

Simplification of means and elevation of minds seems to be the goal

- Albert Einstein

What seems on the surface a very simple thing like the beginnings of the internet can have a profound effect on economic systems like the industrial complex. Computers were originally developed for the industrial age to handle the amount of increased information in our society. IBM became one of the main information handling systems for the industrial age. Little did we know at the beginning of the internet that it would emerge into the first really socialistic form of information. For those who have the opportunity to log into the internet, any subject or current event can be reviewed and searched for with ease. The ramifications of creative destruction of the many things of value to an industrial age are becoming obsolete with the advent of the internet. Creative & intellectual property, copy writed works of all kinds, such as music, art and cinema, even the very basic services that were needed in an industrial age are being reduced to a single person with a computer. As the Einstein’s quote implies the information is all about simplification of means and elevation of minds by streamlining the means of production and marketing and in doing so elevating minds with abundant amounts of information on any subject. So far the internet has been a open resource that any one with means can access. And contrary to the Orwellian view the internet is interactive and not dominating the lives of users as the view Orwell had of government dominating the economic classes with newer technology. The internet is however very much a two edge sword that cuts both ways. The prospect for working people and the economic systems in place will emerge into something very different than it has been. The question you have to ask is what will be the level of creative destruction in the emergence of simpler but complex information system be.

I have chosen the internet as the best first example of what emergence is about. Although emergence is a fundamental principle to everything in the universe that we can observe, nowhere is the advent of emergence in our human world going to be more profound than the linking of personal computers together. Just like the industrial revolution the very nature and outcome of the emergence of new technology is not well understood as it is happening. The history and ramifications of the industrial revolution is still being written and put into context as we enter a new age of information. Many folks in my baby boom generation are still scratching there heads and wondering what were Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and a host of other boomers thinking when we started working with personal computers. In my mind it has vast ramifications for everyone on the planet.

The perceptions of people in relation to these very complex tools is not well understood.

Just like IBM in the eighties did not understand the importance of software and/for operating systems for personal computers, most of the world is just beginning to experience the ramification of the emergence of the internet. Our current economic and complex systems are not well suited to the social ramifications of the internet. Always before in the civilized free market world the opportunity to withhold information and exploit people and resources was controlled by a small group of empire builders. With the emergence of the internet the potential for creative destruction becomes exponential. Its like fission a exponential chain reaction of information. As long as the technology of the internet is in place there will be a lot less viable labor needed. When one graphic artist can do what use take two dozen people to do. And just as the industrial revolution had a profound effect on farming, the internet will have the same effect on the service industry. The truth of the desktop computer can begin to be put into perspective, by looking at what desktop publishing means to marketing and advertising. By simplifying what was a very complicated labor intensive service into the hands of one person at a computer over twenty people have lost jobs over the last thirty years. We are now living in a world that requires much less labor and tools to produce what we need to live. The conclusion I come to is that a lot less people are needed in the information age to provide basic services. And only people who have the skills to maintain the current civilizations complex service tools will have jobs in the service industry.

The emergence of the internet will be most profound in future generations in relation to the retail industry. When home computers become even more complex and future generations realize the value of buying from the source, retail stores will dwindle as well. It will no longer be cost effective to maintain large retail outlets for consumers to shop in and travel to.

This basic principle of emergence is beginning to work against labor as rule. Just like the industrial revolution displaced many farmers the internets emergence will displace millions in the service and retail markets. Henry Ford was quoted as saying of the assembly line and the making of Model T “make the best product possible, at the best price possible, paying the best wages possible. What is happening in the information age is simple cheap but complex systems are being put in place that offer the manufacturer the ability to produce inexpensive products and market them at very low costs. Labor is abundant in this ever shrinking service industry and many talented people are available at low cost to do complex tasks.

As Schumpeter maintains: “Economists are at long last emerging from the stage in which price competition was all they saw. As soon as quality competition and sales effort are admitted into the scared precincts of theory, the price variable is ousted from its dominate position.” What this means in layperson terms is that what is bringing down prices is simple but complex tools like the internet computers and the media, not price competition. This leads to the elimination of many service related jobs related to what were needed to produce and market what we as a society needed. A lot less people are needed to make industrial products and to market and sell them more cheaply. What happened to the farmer in the industrial revolution is now happening to the management and/or the service related labor of the industrial age.

Many civilizations in place right now are ill suited for the degree of change taking place. Bureaucracies do not adapt well to change. A complex social organization like most governments is designed to maintain the status quo. The truth about the nature of emergence is radical changes are occurring that are forcing a degree of change that many people have trouble adapting to. Darwin said that it is not survival of the fittest, but the ones who adapt the fastest. Our civilized world is dependant on a certain amount of stability, that is, no change is necessary in a complex bureaucratic society to learn what we need to know to sustain ourselves. Our whole educational system is based on teaching the facts about things to a certain level of certainty. What happens when things are changing so fast that you can’t teach the teachers fast enough to adapt to what people need to learn to have decent jobs. What is needed now is teaching the next generation to be self learning because the internet allows for a unprecedented rate of change, and for learning to occur so fast, it is necessary to be self learning about whatever you want to pursue. Times are changing so fast that the only way to stay viable is to learn what you need to learn from the internet and not from a complex out dated system that cannot keep up with the rate of change. When so many ideas are linked together via the internet change becomes exponential. The current education system needs to teach kinds to learn on there own. What educators need to do is teach basic computer skills like reading and writing - problem solving and basic theories about what might be possible in the near future. Education needs to instill in the next generation the idea of emergence and that change and complexity are a principle in the universe, when these ideas of emergence are applied to what their interested in, emergence gives the next generation a model to reflect on, as they pursue their life paths, as it has for this writer.

Emergence In relation to economics

Economics is the basic way to think about how we create and exchange goods and services in a civilized world. Not too long ago currency was developed as a medium of exchange for these goods and services. Civilizations came about when humans as a group could produce more from agriculture and their environment than they needed. This surplus of basic needs led to specialization. The more a civilization could produce the more specialization can exisist. This is primitive emergence and the beginnings of a more complex society that allows for yet more emergence. Religion and/or a explanation of everything was the function of the first specialized citizens. In the hunter gatherer groups that existed before the knowledge of agriculture a story telling tradition was an element of the tribe, but the storyteller in the tribe had to perform other tasks for the clan to survive. It is only by discovery of more complex tools, and understanding of natural laws that humans were able to emerge from primitive tribes to the complex world we find ourselves in today. Emergence is present in everything we look at. Once it is understood, emergence gives us a understanding of why things are unfolding the way they are. Like nature, it has its beauty, as well as its dark side. Most of the religions talk about the will of god and give us faith that there is a basic entity in the universe that is controlling our direction. Emergence by an objective observer is this basic principle. There is so much pain and suffering in the world, not to mention chaos that surrounds both human and natural events like wars and earthquakes. But viewed as emergence these are natural events based on changing complex systems that are in a constant state of change. One being the will of one civilization over another and one a natural event related to a earth that is a state of constant change.
For all of recorded history, civilization has been controlled by the first specialized citizens. They gained control by the philosophy of the time and as complexity increased so did the ability to produce more of the basics increase. Religion is a early definition of emergence. Humans were able to produce more and thus many citizens became highly specialized in relation to the environment they lived in. We now live in a world where very few people produce a very large amount of the basic needs of the civilization. The vast amount of extra resources go to defending our civilizations, creating bigger bureaucratic governing entities and bigger more well funded religions. The differences we have between each other are meaningless when looked at objectively as emergence. But as the idea was put in the sixties “how should we then live”. The internet is rapidly changing the world view of things much like the end of slavery was a great upheaval as well as the civil rights movement things and ideas we had about our way of living with each other changed dramatically - what the Boomers have brought forth into the world with the advent of computers and internet networks is a whole new way of economic exchange. A global network means a level of connectedness that has never existed before in such a way. Much of what we hold dear or learned as trades as children are meaningless now. Because if you accept this basic idea of emergence much less is required of us as citizens of the planet. When the concept of emergence is understood as a principle or outcome of the chaos we see and experience, ever increasing complexity as necessary to maintain our civilizations and defend them. It might be possible for the world to come together in way that is not yet understood. But like it or not it emergence is happening at a rate we may not be able to understand as it happens, but like a steam roller it is rolling us into the future.

There are many possible outcomes to the events of the next few years. In 2008 we are experiencing rapid changes of every type. There are lots of theories about what is happening. Like convergence, the flat earth, the end times, and many more. All I know is with the rate of change occurring, much of what we hold dear will come to pass and we will return to basic ways of living and providing for ourselves in much more simple but complex ways, if the current technologies survive. The old models of our economics as we know it are failing the population it serves and a new economic system will emerge to replace it.

I studied economics, history and utopia ideas for much of my undergraduate work in the seventies. What I learned was economics don’t change much unless they fail. The two to four thousand years of our history is about specialization and trying to define what is now being called emergence. During this period of recorded history many thinkers have pondered how to structure a better and more fair society. Our history of emergence is one of great social economic injustices for most of the population of our planet. The average citizen of the planet is still a subsistence rice farmer. This is not a very good trend for all civilizations that call themselves civilized. Unjust economics to me seems to be a part of our basic biological nature and if so not very changeable. But our increasing technological systems and the nature of our environment may demand that we change this. Emergence and living within our means as part of a very complex ecology will demand of us a very different way of living if we are to survive.

It is clear in astronomy that in the furnace of fusion of very large stars more complex atoms are formed. Large blue giant stars form with mainly hydrogen atoms the most simple and common atom in the universe. After billions of years of fusion these atoms become more complex under the gravity and pressures of the chaotic furnace that is a sun. These complex atoms form our chemical periodic chart for chemistry. Many times these large suns become unstable and explode in a nova or supernova explosion expelling all these elements out into the universe. This has been seen as a type of entropy but out of the chaos of the fusion in these large suns comes more complex atoms. This is a form of emergence. The basic principle of emergence is that out of complex systems and what is perceived as chaos comes higher complexity. Our planet is made of complex atoms that were formed in the heart of a massive furnace of a long ago sun.

This is my personal favorite example of emergence because it explains how our planet formed after the big bang a well defined event that started the whole process of how the universe began when hydrogen exploded into the universe. I think there might be something very basic about the hydrogen atom but then what do I know. It is fun to look at emergence as a basic principle in the universe that defines the very nature of what god might be and by my way of thinking is an attemp to explain how we got here scientifically.

Einstein also wrote: "I don't have any doubt that god created the universe, I just wonder how much choice he had in the matter"

-Pete-  Draft Summer of 2008, edited for blog December 2011