Yes, there was great hope from emergence, and the expected results did not materialise. But was that because emergence was not adequately understood, or was it because emergence per se is limited. My instinct is that it is more the former than the latter.
Let us take the example of a termites nest, which is one of the highly cited examples on emergence in living systems. The wonderful order in large termites nests emerges not because there is leadership in the termites, but because termites leave pheromone trails when they move, can sense the pattern of movement that has happened earlier, and have ingrained responses to place mud in the act of nest building based on pheromone patterns that they recognise. Thus one can identify the conditions for emergence as:
- High-synchrony and high-frequency physical interaction
- All actions and interactions leave traces
- There is an impulse toward pattern recognition in the traces.
- Levels of information symmetry are very high as all information is in the public domain
- There is a low preoccupation with grand design, and the focus is on immediate experience and engagement
- The system develops through iterative evolutionary spirals of pattern recognition
There was great hope when social media began to play a role in political struggle, the Arab Spring being a prime example. It was felt that relatively leaderless revolutions and the openness of the new media laid the grounds for emergence. When that did not happen, faith in emergence fell. But an open-ended system of public exchanges is not necessarily emergent, for it does not necessarily lay the grounds for emergence. To identify a few concerns:
- Recognition: As Lawrence Lessig points out, there is a significant difference between recognition in physical space and cyberspace. He cites the example of a pornography store. In a physical store, if an eight-year old child walks in, there is immediate recognition of a problem, whereas in cyberspace this recognition is more problematic given the ease with which false identity and anonymity are possible in cyberspace. Equally significant is the fact that the masks of identity and anonymity are equally available to the person who is doing the recognising, which is a new capability that power can now utilise. Lessig argues that cyberspace needs its own legal system, and one cannot merely extend the law of physical space into cyberspace. But we also need to realise that the question of recognition is one of the most inadequately acknowledged questions in politics. This dates back to the US constitution, which is held up often as a beacon on democracy and human rights, but failed to recognise either misogyny or slavery (a failing that is still to be adequately addressed). And we see it now in the doctrines of neoliberalism that claims a form of the economy is good for everyone, but a refusal to indulge in the data collection and analytics that will actually measure that claim. Without attention given to an inclusive politics of recognition, emergence will never occur.
- Axes of the Social Contract: The hope of emergence came from protest movements. But protest only looks at the vertical axis between citizen and state. This axis contains an asymmetry of power heavily weighted against the citizen. The potential for emergence in lateral connections between citizens, where emergence can occur before engagement with the state, has not been adequately explored.
- Data Trails: Emergence requires that traces of action remain in the public domain. All of us are well aware of the problem here with digital data traces.
- Distortions: Specific distortions are possible given the problems in recognition what with fake accounts, bots, and so on. Again, not much needs to be said on this given the recent publicity on Russian interference in US elections (and no doubt, there are many other such problems that are yet to receive public recognition). Emergence has largely occurred in geographically rooted contexts with physical interaction. This base cannot be easily bypassed, and emergence in social media has to look at its connections with physical space, and particularly the hierarchies of scale at which physical space occurs, operates and evolves. Without this connection, it is unlikely that emergence can happen in socio-political reform.
- Flak: Chomsky and Herman, in their analysis “Manufacturing Consent”, argue that media remains a tool of propaganda and is not the check on the system that it is believed to be. One of the factors is the ability of the system to generate flak that threatens the fundamentals by which media economies work. Manufacturing Consent was written before the era of digital media (I wonder if the argument has been revisited since), but the ability to generate flak is far far greater today. And it is not just at the level of threatening the economics of media institutions, it is also at the level of generating noise at a scale that will distort signal.
- Reflexivity: Unlike termites, and many other natural systems that evolve as emergent systems, human society is reflexive: we can reflect on ourselves, and that reflection can change our future evolution. This was the basis of Karl Popper’s argument for an open society. Emergence in human systems has to foreground how reflexivity will evolve constructively: this is not something that will happen automatically.
- Participation: Because social media allows individuals to leave public markers, it has been assumed that we are automatically empowering widespread participation. But participation is a complex affair. Majid Rahnema points this out by identifying four dimensions of participation: (a) a cognitive dimension, where the development project is constructed through participation; (b) a social dimension, where communities emerge and evolve through participation; (c) an instrumental dimension, where it is argued that the development project will happen more effectively through participation; and (d) a political dimension, where a development project claims validation through participation. Most discourse on participation centres on the political and instrumental dimensions, with scant attention paid to the cognitive and social dimensions. This is tied to an important distinction highlighted by Seely Brown and Duguid in ‘The Social Life of Information’: the difference between networks of practice and communities of practice. People in a network of practice have functional or occupational links in common, tend to come together within the narrow horizon of such links, but otherwise focus on leading lives that are separate from the network, connecting primarily through links (today, largely digital) that permit connections across distance. Communities of practice are tied to geographical place, depend heavily on face-to-face encounters, and rely on serendipity in community to construct meaning in their lives. Communities of practice focus more on the cognitive and social dimensions of participation. Networks of practice focus more on the political and instrumental dimensions of participations. The hopes on emergence did not give enough recognition to this distinction.
To me, it is more of a design challenge than a philosophical dilemma. How do we design the social, political and media institutions the will allow the conditions for emergence to thrive. Our reflexivity will not allow these conditions to emerge spontaneously.
we need to think about the spaces where engagement will happen: engagement that drives widespread reflection on who we are as a society and who we want to be, and leave the question of social models rather open. How do we seed these spaces? How do we scale them? The question of where these spaces are is more important than what they will produce.
Prem, how good to hear from you. I wish you well for the upcoming year.
Concerning emergence, alas, it was the great idea of the 1990s and early 2000s, which a large number of networked political movements took as their "principle of hope" (to quote Ernst Bloch). The keyword of that whole period, for social movements, was "self-organization," which we hoped would revitalize democracy by overcoming the structural devices of social control. But strategic moves by large-scale actors proved to be enough to dissipate emergent attempts to spark social reflection. This became devastatingly clear at the moment of the global street protests against the impending Iraq invasion in 2003, which were just brushed aside by the American state. Later in 2005, during the self-organized protests against the G8 in Geneagles, Scotland, a terrorist attack in the London underground focused all media attention and made the protest movements simply vanish from public awareness. Emergence had been "pre-empted," to use another of the keywords from that time.
Nowadays I continue to find the theories of emergence valuable, as a better description of how innovation takes place within and alongside complex organizations. But it seems that emergent phenomena can be analyzed statistically, and once their composition and properties are more or less known, large-scale actors (state or corporate) can reshape the conditions of emergence in order to reassert social control. It is precisely because I lived through this experience that I have returned to asking questions about the state and civil society. It seems clear that major changes of course require the alignment of institutional priorities and the coordinated exercise of both coercion and incentivization. Emergent phenomena remain marginal, even insignificant, without access to the modernist techniques of social steering. And so the great innovative question, "How to dissolve state power?" has been set aside, in favor of the dauntingly traditional one: "How to take state power?"
The current thread takes the US conditions as an example, but there could be many others and everyone is free to chip in on the basis of their local or regional situation. The whole world is at a turning point, due to the consolidation of oligarchical control over the global political economy and the contradictory need to replace fossil fuels, which have been the literal power-source of capitalism over the last two centuries. Practically everywhere in the developed world one sees the influence of a popular nostalgia for twentieth-century industrial prosperity, with all its attendant hierarchies and oppressions - a nostalgia instrumentalized by neo-authoritarian political forces. These forces have been startlingly effective over the last few years, but people are now mobilizing against them.
The theory of emergence can help one to spot new social phenomena in statu nascendi, and in that sense, your focus on where reflection and engagement begin to happen is quite valuable. I agree, asking where social innovation happens, and attending to exactly what is heppening there, is a necessary starting point. However, emergence on its own appears useless as a principle of hope. And so is any return to the strategies and organizational forms of the 1930s. New social and ecological ideals are effectively emerging. This discussion is about identifying them, and simultaneously, looking ahead to find ways of implementing them in reality. Concepts such as "vision" and "model" - or for that matter, "strategy" - may appear constrictive by comparison to the molecular ferment of emergent behavior, but if you want to see any implementation at scale, they remain crucial. How to share a vision? How to embody a model? How to carry out a strategy? I think the future hangs in the balance of those questions.
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