I recently listened to this podcast on “emergence” that John forwarded to me weeks ago. I think I was immediate in downloading this but slow to actually listen to it because it’s hard for me to sit and listen without doing anything else. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but maybe it’s especially heightened for me because I’m not driving much and this semester not even commuting. So, even more than reading for some reason, sitting and listening to something hasn’t been natural except for on long car trips or back, years ago, when I actually had to drive a long commute. (That, thankfully, is what started my allegiance to NPR.)
In spite of having put this off, though, I found that I was already in on the conversation. I suggested that maybe this was serendipitous, but thinking back on it, I think that the dominoes were all being stacked up in the correct order. In fact, the connections I was making were probably all a loose example of this “emergence” thing. It turned out that the very themes I’d been riffing on, especially the ants, were large focal points within this piece; and, the piece spent a good deal of time talking with Deborah Gordon, who is the author of the very text I was citing in my previous ant rant. So, there was this sudden convergence of ideas. John had proposed the podcast based on my readings on aesthetics, but then I’d drifted (steered?) towards the ant metaphor, and now it all comes back together.
However, emergence is only a good model for some things, almost none of which we’d like to model. In spite of the natural fascination we have with order arising out of a bunch of disconnected individuals (ants, bees, fireflies, or conference participants), I think that our fascination is biased by the notion that such an occurrence is unlikely. Yet, it isn’t. In fact, it’s completely likely and even the status quo. Emergence is normal.
I’m thinking of it from a physics perspective, but the ants are a fine example. Each ant does its own thing, has its own job, follows its own path; and out of the all-doing-your-own-nonguided-thing model we get a system that is stable and self-supporting. However, what we don’t see directly are all of the other collections of individuals — colonies — which failed simply because individual ants had a different tendency. Maybe each ant required one more sniff of another ant before they switched jobs, or maybe they had a tendency to stay 10 cm closer to the nest, or maybe they groomed their home with slightly less vigor, etc. What the existing, emergent colony shows us is not that they have done something extraordinary. Rather, they are doing what every other failed ant colony (and species) ever did, but they just happened to have the right collection of variables to get to a stable system.
In physics, we call this “stable equilibrium,” and it’s the reason that mountains have wide bases and pointy tops rather than pointy bases and wide tops. It’s the reason why we have planets in the places that we do, orbiting about the Sun without running into each other. It’s even the reason that we have this universe. We’re in this universe not because we’re special or because the universe is special, but because it’s the only combination that fits. Lots of other universes could exist that couldn’t have us, and lots of other “us” could exist that couldn’t have this universe. In essence, we just have the right factors to form a stable, albeit really big, harvester ant colony.
I posit that our modern day conference has emerged. It is what we get when we simply let the collection of individuals find an equilibrium position. This is how the conference survives.
The alternative to emergence are the things that we actively have to create, over and over, to keep them going. Science, art, and school systems are all things that we don’t just let exist, because these require deliberate action and creation. Okay, maybe a school system that is allowed to simply emerge is possible, but maybe this is exactly the system that is a problem in need of reform. “Reform” is the antithesis of emergence. That being the case, where are we left when we have an extant system for science education that is status quo, emergent oriented, trying to effect reform? It’s difficult to expect the ant colony to produce a work of art.
I think this is something we’ve recently run into with the planning of Crossroads for 2008. What we originally instigated in the conference was new and deliberately so — oriented towards reform both in its aim and in its method. What I am just starting to realize is that you can’t just repeat the same thing over and over again. (Maybe I’ll be talked out of this notion later.) If the conference itself is the antithesis of the ant colony, then you have to continually infuse it with direction, deliberateness, and individual accountability. We’ve been talking about having a new theme, and new specifics, and there’s a part of me that resists this because the model, so far, has continued to work. But to sit back and just let this be, once the model is established, is exactly the opposite of what we set out to do in the first place.