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Emergence [Organizing Content #19]

Jul 20, 2010 • findability, general, web-design

In the ongoing series on organizing content, we now shift attention to the phenomenon of emergence, and how intelligent, sophisticated systems emerge from relatively simple, unsophisticated parts. I listened to a Radiolab podcast the other day that explored this topic in depth.

The hosts related how in the 1800s, Francis Galton visited a county fair where there was a contest to guess the weight of an ox. About 800 people submitted various guesses about the weight. None of them were right. Later, Galton took the average of the 800 guesses and found it to be just one pound off from the actual weight of the ox. James Surowiecki wrote about this event in his well-known book, The Wisdom of the Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few, and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Businesses, Economies, Societies and Nations.

The wisdom of the crowds is a term often used in discussions of social media. But emergence takes this concept a bit further. Emergence describes the phenomenon of an intelligent system forming from dumb parts. In the ox example above, none of the individuals were intelligent enough to guess the real weight of the ox. But collectively, the average of their answers was extremely intelligent. Emergence looks at how complex, intelligent systems arise despite the apparent absence of intelligence in each individual part.

The Radiolab hosts look at the ants as a prime example of emergence. Individually, ants are dumb. They can spend hours pushing and pulling a twig, without any higher sense of purpose or direction. They are practically brainless, acting without thought. They move here and there, randomly wandering around for food.

Despite their lack of intelligence at the individual level, collectively ants build sophisticated colonies, organize wars with generals and armies; build water barriers to protect themselves from storms; have queens and clearly defined society roles. They can start at two distant ends and meet each other exactly in the middle. Somehow, collectively the ant colony is brilliant. But alone, each ant is mostly dumb and thoughtless. How is it that the complex, ordered system emerges from a sum of thoughtless parts? That's the idea of emergence.

As another example, take the thoughts in your head. Where do they come from? The neurons? Okay, take one neuron out and analyze it. Is that where the thought is? Take another, and another. The thought doesn't exist in or stem from any particular neuron, yet collectively when brought together they form a complex system of intelligence.

Google is another example. In the early days of the Internet, everyone complained about the difficulty of finding anything online. Google came up with a new search algorithm. In Google's search algorithm, every link that someone makes to a site counts as a vote for that site. Further, those sites with a lot of votes have more voting weight.

Individually, no one controls what appears at the top of the results when you search for a term in Google. We don't usually add links to our posts with the idea of influencing the results in Google, and individually few of us have the voting power to influence that high ranking. But the end result of all these links, and the votes and weighting inherent in the algorithm, is findability. Now when you search for information on Google, you usually get a very intelligent set of results -- a set of links that exactly answer your question. Again, a complex, intelligent result stems from individual parts that aren't complex at all.

How exactly does emergence apply to technical communication and help authoring? I will cover that in the next post in this series. Mainly, emergence can only happen when you harness the collective intelligence of the crowd. If you can do that, you can take your help from a useless, frustrating group of topics to an intelligent, highly responsive and accurate body of knowledge.

Collectively we are intelligent; alone we are simple-minded.

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photo by James Cridland


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.