Short works

Books : reviews

Steven Johnson.
Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software.
Penguin. 2001

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 19 August 2003

This book is much better than I thought it was going to be. For some reason, possibly due to the subtitle, I'd got it into my head that it was just another ho-hum pop-science book on emergence and complex systems. It is indeed pop-science, and nothing wrong with that, since it has a refreshing perspective, and some quite deep insights of its own. It's somewhat on a par with Kelley's Out of Control, if rather slimmer.

We do get a lot of ants to start with, but that's just to set the scene, and we're soon off down less well travelled pathways, looking at emergence in our human artefacts: everything from the self-organising characteristics of cities (pulling on ideas from Jane Jacobs), to the designed emergence of the editorial voting schemes on Slashdot. And it is with this designed emergence that I think the book has its strength. Rather than the more usual hands in the air, wow this is amazing but of course impossible to understand, view of emergence, here we have a thoughtful look at how we might be able to control and design systems incorporating these concepts.

When we come across a system that doesn't work well, there's no point in denouncing the use of feedback itself. Better to figure out the specific rules of the system at hand and start thinking of ways to wire it so that the feedback routines promote the values we want promoted. It's the old sixties slogan transposed into the digital age: if you don't like the way things work today, change the system.

Steven Johnson.
Everything Bad is Good for You: how popular culture is making us smarter.
Penguin. 2005

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 26 August 2008

Modern culture (TV, video games, etc) is just degenerate mindless drivel, appealing to the lowest common denominator, and turning us all into mindless couch potato zombies. Right?

Wrong! Johnson argues persuasively that popular culture is not only getting more complex and sophisticated, it is increasing (certain aspects of) its consumers' intelligence. It's just that we evaluate its surface content, not its deeper cognitive structure, when coming to our knee-jerk assessments of its value. We also evaluate it in the context of older culture, such as reading, and see only the downsides, not its upsides. (He has an amusing riff on what people would be saying about the impoverished experience of reading books, if books had been introduced after video games.) Johnson argues the the Flynn Effect (a general rise in IQ levels over the decades) is due in some part to the fact that we are living in a more complex environment, not least of which is a result of this increased cultural complexity.

He dissects video games, and shows that far from being "instant gratification", most look more like pure hard work. He suspects that people who condemn these as being "trivial" can't have tried to play one. He also analyses the complex problem solving, and problem exploring, skills such games require. In many games, what you have to do is to work out what you have to do! You have to explore the world, try things, probe the possibilities. This hones a skill-set very valuable when encountering the complex layers of new technology in the real world, and may help to explain why people brought up on these games are so much more fluent in their interactions with that technology: they have learnt techniques to find out how the world works. (This could help explain why people don't read manuals: you don't consult the "cheat sheet" until you've tried sufficiently hard to solve the problem yourself.)

He similarly dissects TV shows, demonstrating how they have got massively more complex over the decades. They have moved from simple linear plotlines, to complex interwoven structures. And at the same time, the "flashing arrow" cues to help the viewer navigate have been reduced, or even removed completely. This means current TV shows require considerably more concentration and involvement from the viewer: you can't just "veg out" in front of shows like 24 or The Sopranos, you have to think, to construct models of what's going on, in order to understand them. Yet a show like The Sopranos, which 30 years ago would have been way too sophisticated for even niche viewers, is today a prime time hit. So it isn't just an elite few watching shows like this.

Part of this is driven by the technology: successful TV shows make more in syndication and DVD sales than they do on first runs. This means that popular shows need to support multiple viewings, which not merely allows them, but requires them, to be more complex and sophisticated: full of in-jokes, obscure references, complex out-of-order plot lines, and so on.

Even the much-derided "reality TV" is cognitively challenging: following a show like The Apprentice requires understanding of complex social networks: who likes whom, who is tricking whom, and so on. And this in turn leads to fan sites full of discussions and analyses of these shows.

So this is a very positive message. This much-derided culture is actually making us smarter! But it is making us smarter in specific ways. Reality shows and complex plotlines encourage analysis of social networks and increase our emotional intelligence. Video games encourage "probing" the system to discover what the rules are and how the world works. These are different ways of understanding the world from those taught in the more conventional educational systems, with their more bottom-up, accretive style of learning. This book seems to imply that current students would fare better being dumped in a rich immersive learning environment, and allowed to build up their knowledge and skills by exploring it. They might learn a lot more about it this way. But such worlds would have to be designed so that the rules discovered are the right ones, not merely contingent special cases caused by bugs in the system!

Steven Johnson.
The Invention of Air.
Penguin. 2009

Steven Johnson.
Where Good Ideas Come From: the seven patterns of innovation.
Penguin. 2010

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 15 December 2011

Steven Johnson again does what he is best at: pulling together a lot of disparate factlets into a coherent and thought-provoking whole. Here it is about (as you may have guessed) "where ideas come from". How do innovations occur? Is it the lone genius in the attic, the team working to a planned goal, or what? Johnson identifies seven factors:

  1. the adjacent possible -- where you can get to from here (in one step) -- sometimes the time is not right for an invention
  2. liquid networks -- networks large enough that something can happen, and reconfigurable enough that something new can happen
  3. the slow hunch -- it just time for all the components to come together
  4. serendipity -- lucky chance
  5. error -- lucky mistake
  6. exaptation -- creative repurposing
  7. platforms -- enabling infrastructure

So cities, and intellectual openness, are great for innovation -- they allow ideas to circulate, to bang against each other frequently, to be used and reused and adapted, until the right combination occurs and innovation can take off. There are profound consequences here for how we should organise our research centres -- of course, it depends on what we are trying to maximise: research benefit for all, or research benefit for our organisation. Maximising the latter seems to minimise the former.

An interesting book, with deep consequences for promoting innovation, printed in an eye-wateringly tiny font.