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Paul Grobstein's picture

Looking forward to seeing what we can make this semester of the subject of emergence. Remember this is a place for informal conversation rather than finished thoughts, a place to leave ideas and questions of yours that others might find useful and to find ideas and questions from others that might be useful to you. I'll post a topic each week, like this one, for you to respond to, but you're free to write about anything that has occurred to you during the week (as many times as you like), and to respond to other people's responses as well. To get started (if you need something), what do you think emergence is, and why are you interested in it?

rob's picture

applying emergence theory to mass protest

I've been thinking about Emegernce as a logical model to explain a variety of phenomena including incidents in everyday life. One example occurred to me on Saturday when I went down to DC with a group of other Haverford students to attend a large protest on the National Mall. Seeing this crowd of tens of thousands of activists swarm and cluster around the large open space led me to wonder what logical systems could be generated to explain the behavior of such a crowd. Several things occurred to me :

1. The Environment: The organization, United for Peace and Justice, that organized the protest worked with the cops to lay out the physical geography of the space. Barricades were constructed along the sides to keep the crowd contained to the Mall, and a large bandstand was constructed from which the speakers could preach. In addition, UFPJ distributed maps that showed where different blocs (such as the student bloc, the labor bloc, the Latino bloc etc.) were supposed to gather, but many people chose to disregard these maps and move through the space at their own speed. Essentially, UFPJ set the confines of the space and made a limited attempt at designing the meta-level of arrangement but did little to lead actual individuals through the space. As a result, the form remained fluid and evolving throughout the day.

2. Rules and Conditions: One way of explaining different people's behavior is to say that different individuals had different rule sets governing their movement through the space and different conditions defining their situations. Slight differences in either rules or conditions could lead to different behaviors.

for example: people who like pretzels might have the rule:

if (you pass a pretzel stand AND you're hungry) -> then: buy a pretzel

This rule depends on the conditions of being at a pretzel stand and being hungry. Two people could share this rule and be at a pretzel stand, but if only one meets the condition of being hungry, then only one will buy a pretzel and the other will continue moving around the rally. On the other hand, if somebody didn't like pretzels, they wouldn't have this rule, so they could meet the conditions of being at a pretzel stand and being hungry but wouldn't buy a pretzel.

3. Randomness: I'm inclined to say the system was not deterministic and that had the same people been there on the same day in the same weather, the crowd still might have moved in a slightly different way. There are several ways to explain this in terms of rules and conditions, including:
1. The systems are actually incredibly complex and involve a very large number of relevant conditions. For example, in the above pretzel example, it would be possible to like pretzels, be at a pretzel stand and be hungry but still not buy a pretzel if you'd rather have a hot dog or if your friend really had to find a bathroom. The number of relevant conditions doesn't make the system non-deterministic in of itself, but it does make it incredibly fragile, and a massive amount would have to be controlled for in order to get the crowd to move in exactly the same way every time.
2. Another thing that makes the system unstable is that the rules governing individuals might change over the course of the day if they experience things that affect the way they think. For example, somebody with no political affiliation could start out with the rule: if (somebody hands me a free newspaper) -> then I'm going to take it and read it. Following this rule, they could end up reading a free socialist newspaper, agreeing with it and taking on the new rule: if (i pass a group of socialists) -> then I'm going to talk to them.

shikha's picture

Emergence is interesting to

Emergence is interesting to me because I am intending to double major in Biology and Computer Science and this seems like a nice blend of the two, but now I see that it is even more interdisciplinary than that. Honestly I had no idea what it was till the first day of class, but now I find it quite fascinating, which had led me to playing around with the Game of Life quite a bit! I suppose as many people have written, it is the mystery surrounding this topic that intrigues me most.

mgupta's picture

Honestly, I took Emergence

Honestly, I took Emergence because it was a Computer Science course that was fitting into my schedule. But I agree with Lauren about the "mystery", the questions that come up now and again and yet they stay unanswered. I think Emergence is something that works toward trying to solve this mystery.

Lauren's picture

course selection

I am basically really interesting in the topic because, once again, it is one of those interdisciplinary concepts that seems to pop up everywhere and, yet, no one can really explain. A mystery of that I've come across in every discipline from computer science to biology to economics to education, etc. I also developed a bit of an appetite on the subject from Duncan Watts's "Six Degrees" (which is on the book list and is definitely recommended to anyone interested in getting an introductory perspective on global connectivity and social networks!)

samkaplan's picture

I was initially most

I was initially most interested in Emergence because of its interdisciplinary potential. The idea that there are similarities between such diverse phenomena as traffic, blood flow, neurons, and life itself, is pretty incredible. It reminded me of "Gödel, Escher, Bach," a book which I tried to read but, although it fascinated me, couldn't finish. Now that I see it's on the list of books to review, maybe I'll give it another shot.