Kevin Kelly
Out of Control
Perseus Books 1994

Keywords:

FLOCKING - A flock is not a big bird. Writes the science reporter James Gleick, "Nothing in the motion of an individual bird or fish, no matter how fluid, can prepare us for the sight of a skyful of starlings pivoting over a cornfield, or a million minnows snapping into a tight, polarized array.... High-speed film [of flocks turning to avoid predators] reveals that the turning motion travels through the flock as a wave, passing from bird to bird in the space of about one-seventieth of a second. That is far less than the bird's reaction time." The flock is more than the sum of the birds - COOPERATION - William Morton WHEELER, the ant pioneer (The Ant Colony as an Organism, 1911), started calling the bustling cooperation of an insect colony a "superorganism" to clearly distinguish it from the metaphorical use of "organism." - SUPERORGANISMS - EMERGENCE - Wheeler saw "emergent properties" within the superorganism superseding the resident properties of the collective ants. Wheeler said the superorganism of the hive "emerges" from the mass of ordinary insect organisms. And he meant emergence as science - a technical, rational explanation - not mysticism or alchemy - causality - circular causality: the concept of emergence signaled a different variety of causation. Here 2 + 2 does not equal 4; it does not even surprise with 5. In the logic of emergence, 2 + 2 = apples. "The emergent step, though it may seem more or less saltatory [a leap], is best regarded as a qualitative change of direction, or critical turning-point, in the course of events


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.....what birds do: they flock. A bird on the fly, however, has no overarching concept of the shape of its flock. "Flockness" emerges from creatures completely oblivious of their collective shape, size, or alignment. A flocking bird is blind to the grace and cohesiveness of a flock in flight.

At dawn, on a weedy Michigan lake, ten thousand mallards fidget. In the soft pink glow of morning, the ducks jabber, shake out their wings, and dunk for breakfast. Ducks are spread everywhere. Suddenly, cued by some imperceptible signal, a thousand birds rise as one thing. They lift them­selves into the air in a great thunder. As they take off they pull up a thou­sand more birds from the surface of the lake with them, as if they were all but part of a reclining giant now rising. The monstrous beast hovers in the air, swerves to the east sun, and then, in a blink, roverses direction, turning itself inside out. A second later, the entire swarm veers west and away, as if steered by a single mind. In the 17th century, an anonymous poet wrote: ". . . and the thousands of fishes moved as a huge beast, piercing the water. They appeared united, inexorably bound to a common fate. How comes this unity?"

A flock is not a big bird. Writes the science reporter James Gleick, "Nothing in the motion of an individual bird or fish, no matter how fluid, can prepare us for the sight of a skyful of starlings pivoting over a cornfield, or a million minnows snapping into a tight, polarized array.... High-speed film [of flocks turning to avoid predators] reveals that the turning motion travels through the flock as a wave, passing from bird to bird in the space of about one-seventieth of a second. That is far less than the bird's reaction time." The flock is more than the sum of the birds.

In the film "Batman Returns" a horde of large black bats swarmed through flooded tunnels into downtown Gotham. The bats were computer generated. A single bat was created and given leeway to automatically flap its wings. The one bat was copied by the dozens until the animators had a mob. Then each bat was instructed to move about on its own on the screen following only a few simple rules encoded into an algorithm: don't bump into another bat, keep up with your neighbors, and don't stray too far away. When the algorithmic bats were run, they flocked like real bats.

The flocking rules were discovered by Craig Reynolds, a computer scientist working at Symbolics, a graphics hardware manufacturer. By tuning the various forces in his simple equation—a little more cohesion, a little less lag time—Reynolds could shape the flock to behave like living bats, sparrows, or fish. Even the marching mob of penguins in Batman Returns were flocked by Reynolds's algorithms. Like the bats, the computer-modeled 3D penguins were cloned en masse and then set loose into the scene aimed in a certain direction. Their crowdlike jostling as they marched down the snowy street simply emerged, out of anyone's control.

So realistic is the flocking of Reynolds's simple algorithms that biologists have gone back to their hi-speed films and concluded that the flocking behavior of real birds and fish must emerge from a similar set of simple rules. A flock was once thought to be a decisive sign of life, some noble for­mation only life could achieve. Via Reynolds's algorithm it is now seen as an adaptive trick suitable for any distributed vivisystem, organic or made.

William Morton WHEELER, the ant pioneer (The Ant Colony as an Organism, 1911), started calling the bustling cooperation of an insect colony a "superorganism" to clearly distinguish it from the metaphorical use of "organism." He was influenced by a philosophical strain at the turn of the century that saw holistic patterns overlaying the individual behavior of smaller parts.
The enterprise of science was on its first stops of a head­long rush into the minute details of physics, biology, and all natural sciences. This pell-mell to reduce wholes to their constituents, seen as the most pragmatic path to understanding the wholes, would continue for the rest of the century and is still the dominant mode of scientific inquiry.
Wheeler and colleagues were an essential part of this reductionist perspective, as the 50 Wheeler monographs on specific esoteric ant behaviors testify.

But at the same time, Wheeler saw "emergent properties" within the superorganism superseding the resident properties of the collective ants. Wheeler said the superorganism of the hive "emerges" from the mass of ordinary insect organisms. And he meant emergence as science—a technical, rational expla­nation—not mysticism or alchemy.

Wheeler held that this view of emergence was a way to reconcile the reduce-it-to-its parts approach with the see-it-as-a-whole approach. The duality of body/mind or whole/part simply evaporated when holistic behavior lawfully emerged from the limited behaviors of the parts. The specifics of how superstuff emerged from baser parts was very vague in everyone's mind. And still is.

What was clear to Wheeler's group was that emergence was a common natural phenomena. It was related to the ordinary kind of causation in everyday life, the kind where A causes B which causes C, or 2 + 2 = 4. Ordinary causality was invoked by chemists to cover the observation that sulfur atoms plus iron atoms equal iron sulfide molecules.
According to fellow philosopher C. Lloyd Morgan, the concept of emergence signaled a different variety of causation. Here 2 + 2 does not equal 4; it does not even surprise with 5. In the logic of emergence, 2 + 2 = apples. "The emergent step, though it may seem more or less saltatory [a leap], is best regarded as a qualitative change of direction, or critical turning-point, in the course of events," writes Morgan in "Emergent Evolution", a bold book in 1923. Morgan goes on to quote a verse of Browning poetry which confirms how music emerges from chords:

And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star
.

We would argue now that it is the complexity of our brains that extracts music from notes, since we presume oak trees can't hear Bach. Yet "Bachness"—all that invades us when we hear Bach—is an appropriately poetic image of how a meaningful pattern emerges from musical notes and generic information.

The organization of a tiny honeybee yields a pattern for its tinier one­tenth of a gram of wing colls, tissue, and chitin. The organism of a hive yields integration for its community of worker bees, drones, pollen and brood. The whole 50-pound hive organ emerges with its own identity from the tiny bee parts. The hive possesses much that none of its parts possesses. One speck of a honeybee brain operates with a memory of six days; the hive as a whole operates with a memory of three months, twice as long as the average bee lives.

Ants, too, have hive mind. A colony of ants on the move from one nest site to another exhibits the Kafkaesque underside of emergent control. As hordes of ants break camp and head west, hauling eggs, larva, pupae—the crown jewels—in their beaks, other ants of the same colony, patriotic work­ers, are hauling the trove east again just as fast, while still other workers, per­haps acknowledging conflicting messages, are running one direction and back again completely empty-handed. A typical day at the office. Yet, the ant colony moves.

Without any visible decision making at a higher level, it chooses a new nest site, signals workers to begin building, and governs itself. The marvel of "hive mind" is that no one is in control, and yet an invisible hand governs, a hand that emerges from very dumb members. The marvel is that more is different. To generate a colony organism from a bug organism requires only that the bugs be multiplied so that there are many, many more of them, and that they communicate with each other.

At some stage the level of complexity reaches a point where new categories like "colony" can emerge from simple categories of "bug." Colony is inherent in bugness, implies this marvel. Thus, there is nothing to be found in a beehive that is not submerged in a bee. And yet you can search a bee forever with cyclotron and fluoroscope, and you will never find the hive.

This is a universal law of vivisystems: higher-level complexities cannot be inferred by lower-level existences. Nothing—no computer or mind, no means of mathematics, physics, or philosophy—can unravel the emergent pattern dissolved in the parts without actually playing it out. Only playing out a hive will tell you if a colony is immixed in a bee. The theorists put it this way: running a system is the quickest, shortest, and only sure method to discern emergent structures latent in it. There are no shortcuts to actually "expressing" a convoluted, nonlinear equation to discover what it does. Too much of its behavior is packed away.

That leads us to wonder what else is packed into the bee that we haven't seen yet? Or what else is packed into the hive that has not yet appeared because there haven't been enough honeybee hives in a row all at once? And for that matter, what is contained in a human that will not emerge until we are all interconnected by wires and politics? The most unexpected things will brow in this bionic hivelike supermind.





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