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Jacobs' Creative Self-Organization

Ben Koski

One of the most intriguing ideas presented in Jane Jacobs' The Nature of Economies is the concept of "creative self-organization" (137). In discussing the seemingly unpredictable behavior of many large, complex systems, Jacobs posits that "even if every single influence on some types of complex systems could be accurately taken into account, their futures would still be unpredictable" (ibid.). That is to say that even if we were able to measure all possible inputs into a complex system—and had the computational power to analyze all such inputs—we could not develop an algorithm to effectively model the system. Indeed, it could be said that such a system exhibited properties of emergence, since the only way to predict the state of the system at time t would be to actually run the system.

This, I believe, represents a major departure from paradigms of emergence that we have seen so far in our studies: though the scholarly work that we have seen grapples with the emergent properties of cellular automata, agent-based modeling, and evolutionary algorithms (that is, the idea that these systems are non-deterministic and so can only be predicted through simulation), this work does not account for a system that is "making itself up as it goes along" (ibid.). Conventionally, the study of "emergent" phenomena focuses on systems that cannot be predicted because the final output depends on a connected series of inputs. The output of a CA cannot be predicted deterministically because it depends on the repeated application of a ruleset on a series of intermediate outputs. The final result of an agent-based model such as Langton's Ant cannot be predicted deterministically because the state of the environment at time t requires the application of a rule over all previous time points.

Yet we do agree that running an "emergent" CA or agent-based model over and over with the same parameters should yield the same results. We should be able to—and can—replicate Wolfram's experiments simply by applying the same ruleset to the same starting point over the same amount of time. Running a basic version of Langton's Ant with the same parameters should produce the same result at time t, since the output is merely the application of rules over connected inputs. Though different runs of an evolutionary algorithm may produce different "products," it will always yield the same "result" in that the algorithm will reliably end with the satisfaction of a fitness function. Furthermore, genetic algorithms could be viewed as mere applications of a simple rule to a series of connected inputs—albeit with unpredictability introduced. If we had a means of replicating random mutations in an evolutionary algorithm, we would be able to reproduce the results.

Jacobs takes a step beyond all three of these models with the idea that "a system can be making itself up as it goes along" (ibid.). There is no ruleset governing behavior; there is no concept of connected inputs leading to a final output. Indeed, the inputs do not even matter: whether we know the inputs or not, the system is still unpredictable. Unlike other sorts of emergent systems, the system is non-deterministic not because it depends on intermediate inputs that must be computed prior to the result, but because it is simply and utterly unpredictable. This unpredictability is the direct result of the fact that the system is "making itself up as it goes along:" the phenomena is dynamically changing its rules, process, environment, and fitness function as it progresses. Therefore, no two runs of the system will nver be alike because no two runs will ever be conducted under the same ruleset, process, or fitness function. The results of such a system are not replicable.

Though this concept of creative organization does not provide a very robust analytical framework for peeking inside these systems or understanding their mechanics, it does allow Jacobs to account for natural systems that exhibit unpredictable behavior. Jacobs' strongest example is that of weather. Jacobs draws on Frank Lorenz's famous weather forecasting experiment in which Lorenz showed that past weather patterns serve as poor predictors for future weather, in order to demonstrate the inherent unpredictability of weather systems (135). She also makes use of examples from linguistics—"speakers make a language and yet nobody, including its speakers or scholars, can predict its future vocabulary or usages," Jacobs explains—and studies of processes in ecosystems to demonstrate the breadth and existence of systems operating under the control of "creative self-organization" (137, 158).

Though these examples and explanations make sense, there are still uncomfortable points in Jacobs' theory. The most glairing gap in Jacobs' framework lies in the idea of a system doing something: in constructing the idea of a system that is "making itself up as it goes along," Jacobs implicitly introduces the idea of some sort of hidden actor that is doing this "making." In order for something to be "making itself" do anything, there must be some sort of actor taking some sort of action. Whether conscious or not, holistic or narrowly defined, this implicit actor is doing something and participating in the direction of the system. By failing to address what exactly is "making up" the system as it goes along, Jacobs leaves us with some troubling questions. Is there some sort of a master conductor hidden deep within these systems? Moreover, if there is some sort of actor "making up" the system, could it be possible to determine the rule that this actor uses to "make up" the system? Is this agent not bound by certain limits? If we could determine this rule—or even just the bounds of the agent "making up" the system, wouldn't the system then be predictable?

Also unaddressed is the influence of agents within the system. At least two of the examples of "creative self-organization" presented—most notably the case studies from linguistics and ecology—are made up of a large number of independent, individual agents acting collectively. An ecosystem is comprised of plant and animal agents each making independent "plans for the future" that have collective influence; languages are shaped by a number of individual speakers, each contributing their own linguistic idiosyncrasies to the collective language. How can we be sure that this observed unpredictability is not merely the result of a diverse collective agency? Jacobs asserts that these systems themselves are unpredictable, but it is entirely possible that unpredictability results from the complex "co-development webs" that are necessarily present in a large group of independent agents (20). Her failure to address the influence of individual actors—either at the individual or collective level—casts some doubt on the idea of "creative self-organization."

Another important concept raised in Jacobs' work is that of development—economic or otherwise—as an emergent process. Traditionally, development is thought of as the "multiplication" of existing resources to create new, more diverse resources (19). Jacobs, however, posits that one can think of development as "differentiation emerging from generalities" (16). Each new generation—or differentiation—becomes new "generalities from which other differentiations emerge" (ibid.). The diversity generated by the emergence of these new generations is further heightened by "co-developments," or the development of parallel—but independent—processes (19). Jacobs' best example of the influence of co-development is that of a river delta: "A delta needs both water and grit," she explains. "Neither, by itself, can develop a delta and each, by itself, is a result of co-developments" (ibid.). Jacobs' theory of development has important implications for the study and analysis of economic development. Perhaps most importantly, it debunks the "Thing Theory" (31). Many economic development experts were taught to suppose that "development is the result of possessing things such as factories, schools, tractors, dams, whatever..."—and often express puzzlement when the purchase of these "things" does not lead to successful economic development (ibid.). Jacobs, however, explains that "if the development process is lacking in a town or other settlement, things either given or sold to it are merely products of the [development] process somewhere else. They don't mysteriously carry the process with them" (ibid.). Thus, if economic development efforts are ever to be successful, they must understand development as a process, rather than a thing that can be influenced by the purchase or transfer of other things. Another important point underscored by Jacobs is the chilling effects of discrimination on economic development. The process of creating new "differentiations" for development depends on the innovation and creativity of economic actors. Jacobs theorizes that discrimination inhibits economic development because a large part of a population "doing [menial work], are excluded from taking initiatives to develop all of that work"—and thus a large proportion of an economy's labor that could be used to develop new differentiations is wasted in inefficient menial labor (33). As Jacobs puts it, "people don't need to be geniuses or even extraordinarily talented to develop their work. The requirements are initiative and resourcefulness—qualities abundant in the human race when they aren't discouraged or suppressed" (ibid.). Limiting these qualities limits the ability of an economy to successfully develop.

To introduce her thoughts on emergence and economic development, Jacobs resorts to setting up her text as a fictional conversation between friends—ostensibly for the purpose of bringing "rarefied economic abstractions into contact with earthy realities" (ix). This decision, however, becomes a critical limit on her work—essentially limiting the import her work to merely that of a conversation between friends. Jacobs feels that the use of "dramatic dialogue" to present material excuses her from having to include footnotes and other direct references (ibid.). Though she does include further explanation and many references to the most influential examples included in the text in the "notes" section, many of the smaller examples introduced in the book are completely undocumented. For example, Jacobs claims that "knowledge of how to choose good transit routes seems to be going extinct, too, judging from cities that construct expensive transportation lines long ridiculous routes, then wonder why they're underused" in an effort to demonstrate the importance of obsolete differentiations introduced by development, but fails to include any references or further proof to back this assertion up (30). Similarly, Jacobs often relies on the roots and usage history of English words to make proofs, but often fails to include references to linguistic authorities to give her observations weight.

Despite the lack of comprehensive references, Jacobs' The Nature of Economies does raise intriguing and important points—particularly in the fields of emergence and economic development.

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

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