Tensions in Agency Jane Jacobs and Emergent Thought

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Tensions in Agency Jane Jacobs and Emergent Thought

Angad Singh

While Jane Jacobs' The Nature of Economies is replete with references to emergence theory, it focuses primarily on the application of emergent thought without actually referencing it as such. Explicitly referenced in only one instance(1) , the novel yet draws significant insights from what could be considered an emergent perspective or lens. This essay will uncover the theoretical underpinnings of Jacobs' novel as they relate to emergence. The exploration will focus on tensions in Jacobs' thoughts on agency(2).

One contentious issue in emergence theory is that of agents or agency. In the manner of Armbruster, a character in the novel fixated on definitions, an agent could be described as an encapsulated entity operating under some set of rules. In the NetLogo modeling environment, a turtle is a constructed agent able to operate under unique parameters. In a similar sense, living organisms could be construed as agents operating under rules different from those than govern the inanimate. Jacobs' narrative ventures near acceptance of agents and agency but does so in a nuanced and contradictory manner worth analyzing.

The Nature of Economies often describes animate objects, such as humans, as individuals capable of altering their environments. This line of thought of thought is tempered, however, by not conceding that agents are anything more than useful constructs. Also, there is little speculation far in the other direction by considering agents to be merely patterns, such as a glider in Conway's Game of Life (3). The opposition perspectives are both broach at times, and a delicate balance is achieved between the two. Jacobs, through the character Kate, asserts that inanimate and animate development depend on the same underlying processes. At the same time, she consistently refers to the animate and inanimate distinctly. The theoretical argument Jacobs' appears to be making in this instance is: while there is no substantive difference between the animate and inanimate, the construction of animate agents is useful. While the construct of an agent is consistently applied throughout Jacobs' novel, her characters equally consistently argue that the same universal principles and processes govern animate and inanimate reality. What initially appears as an inconsistency in Kate's thoughts on agents is actually her concession that the false construct of encapsulated agents is a useful construct.

Though surrounded by intelligent and accomplished individuals, the primary fount of wisdom in Jacobs' novel is Hiram, a proponent of biomimicry. Biomimicry is the usage of natural processes to achieve desirable ends, such as utilizing human hair to clean oil spills. The underlying supposition of biomimicry, however, is partially at odds with the conception of agency detailed above. Biomimicry presupposes a dichotomy between natural and unnatural human constructs and processes. Its very aim is to make human constructs and processes more natural. But if one holds true that agents are but emergent patterns fundamentally based on the same principles and processes as non-agents, then the human agent is natural to its very core. As Kate argues, accusing human action of being unnatural or artificial is "like accusing spiders of artificiality because they're spinning something other than cotton, flax, silk, wool, or hemp fibers" (9). There is no alternative than to operate under universal processes and principles for agents and non-agents alike. This claim, however, is not nearly as nihilistic as it may appear on the surface. Beneath the 'everything is natural' veneer lies prudent resolve.

This tension on the topic of agency could be construed as being theoretically central to Jacobs' novel. Her characters consistently struggle in reconciling their wanton ambitions for development while maintaining a delicate and versatile conception of agency. Hiram and Armbruster debate the requisite preconditions and universal processes governing ecologic and economic development. The motivation for their analysis is one of free will or agency. The purpose of understanding development is to better inform ecologic and economic decisions. While all of Jacobs' characters cede that development follows universal principles and processes, they also oftentimes retain faith in free will. In this perspective, an agent may consciously shape the direction of development while following universal principles and processes. Though it is a touchy argument to make, Jacobs' may be hinting at the difference between free will and encapsulation. If an agent is provided limited encapsulation and variability in its responses, it does not necessarily have free will. An encapsulated agent could simply be a more complex cellular automata. As the characters struggle with determining the proper recourse for development, they are playing with notions of agency and free will (4).

A community of thriving agents requires equilibrium in number and environment to achieve dynamic stability. In the words of Hiram, "both the competition and the arena for competition are necessary" (123). A parasite killing its host effectively dashes its hope for dynamic stability. In the case of stability in number, Jacobs describes four methods by which it is achieved: bifurcation, positive-feedback loops, negative-feedback controls, and emergency adaptations. Bifurcations loosely fall under the category of a change in rule sets, such that the progression of an agent deviates by making a change in operation. The feedback controls are analogous to multi-leveled learning in NetLogo programming, where certain behaviors are either encouraged or discouraged. It is important to note that the feedback controls are not discriminatory, meaning that positive behaviors can be negatively mitigated while negative behaviors may be positively reinforced. The fourth method to achieve stability in number, emergency adaptation, again tests the emergent notions of free will, agency, and encapsulation.

Emergency adaptations are mobilized when an agent is confronted with a dire threat. Seasonal variations in temperature induce hibernation in certain species of bears. Periodic hibernation, however, is not considered an emergency adaptation. Abnormal, unique, or unexpected threats result in emergency adaptations. As described Hiram, the primary emergency adaptations required of humans are speed and improvisation, traits that are in many individuals' repertoire. Under extenuating circumstances, agents make required and oftentimes drastic emergency adaptations to satisfy the demands of external pressures. Again, this presupposes an encapsulated agent reacting to pressures outside itself. In her subtle way, Jacobs is also suggesting that agents do less than switch rule sets. Instead of switching to an entirely novel rule set, able agents simply begin operating under rules already within their repertoire that previously lay dormant. The activation of these rules occurs not through conscious decision but by changing environmental conditions.

This stands in marked contrast to the stance described earlier with regards to encapsulation and free will. The conversational, didactic structure of the text, however, lends itself to such tensions and internal contradictions. By placing certain arguments, whether explicit or otherwise, in the mouths of different characters, Jacobs is able to weave together disparate notions of agency. From insinuating agents are little more than patterns and expedient constructs to utilizing agents as discrete, autonomous entities, the inconsistencies of the novel provide readers with an opportunity to establish their own interpretation by reconciling the various viewpoints. Or maybe the lesson of the day is simply to utilize the most effectual notion of agency for each particular situation. Perhaps we should just relish its multiplicity and exploit it when suitable.

1. Jacobs describes the emergence of a multi-cellular organism from undifferentiated cells
2. As mentioned in an online forum, it is interesting to note that women and minorities are more likely to focus on the application of emergent analysis than on emergence theory.
3. In Conway's Game of Life, gliders can appear to behave as agents. Because they are not encapsulated and do not operate under different rule sets, however, gliders are little more than patterns misconstrued as discrete objects. The human predilection for pattern deifies their existence, placing within their existence autonomy and agency.
4. It could be argued that the agents are not in fact operating under a different rule set. The encapsulated agent may operate under the same rule set, but because of different environmental conditions, it may activate a different subset of rules. A simplistic example could be an acidic encapsulation within a basic environment. While ions in both environmental conditions operate under the same rule set regarding charge transfer, only rules pertinent to the given environmental condition will be in effect. In this case, however, the characters give no indication of this argument.

Works Cited

Jacobs, Jane. The Nature of Economies. Modern Library, New York: 2000.

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