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Emergent dis-counts and other natural nests of ants

Last meeting with Steven Johnson in Anacapri has been one of the most fruitful experience in my academic education up to now. One could expect to relate such a good judgment to a kind of intellectual upgrading, or to a set of answers for still unresolved problems or unanswered questions; in my view, it has been very fruitful otherwise for the questions that arose from such a meeting. I decided to write down some ideas when I have just been back from our intense meeting, so maybe my reflections do not create an organic framework of thought, anyway, I know this is not a fault for minds wide open as I think you (my mates in this journey towards the future) are.
I was waiting for long time this meeting since Steven, a very intelligent and brilliant mind as well as funny guy, deals with topics I find crucial for my interests, not only in a strictly academic sense, but rather in a wider intellectual one: mainly videogames and emergence. What about videogames? They’re so fun, but not so important in my view if compared to other issues on the ground. So, what about emergence? I’ve read several books dealing with this topic and, as other concepts, there is no general consensus about what does in fact emergence mean, where does emergence finish and chaos starts, or where emergence stops and natural laws begin to work; this is a first point, but now I’m not interested in making comparison among emergence theorists or theories: I’m interested in understanding Steven Johnson’s approach, trying to ask to my myself from where does his reflection start and where does it possibly go. Of course the reading of his text is a pleasure for the whole brain – so I hope my right side will not be angry with me! – but I want to meditate about the explanation he gave by voice: the dynamic of the neighbourhood.
Let’s try to summarize.

If we have an urban space, and we locate an activity inside it, be it a cafe, a restaurant, or a shop (in Steven’s words), and we have no pre-determined roads or street to walk on foot, this new activity will create a kind of attraction that could swerve (I guess you remember this word!) pedestrians, catching their attention by stimulating their interests. Later, other shops could locate themselves along the path described by the people in order to catch their attention as well, so that, finally, a kind of overall spatial system will emerge as a filter for urban life. A similar process is viewable in a university campus where four buildings, located in the four corners of the rectangular space, comes to be linked through diagonal paths, rather then orthogonal ones previously designed by engineers. But, as we have seen, this mechanism lets the students heavily spoiling the grass. Since I am very sensible to the waste of whatever kind of grass, the first question to me was: “Was the collective intelligence of the students, or the well-known collective myopia of engineers that emerge?”.
Anyway, deeper questions jumped around into my mind. First and superficial. Which were the driving forces we were considering as the generative principle of the action of the persons/ants we were looking at? No doubt it was the push to consume, to spend, to satisfy needs through an economic action. And where did this process took place? No doubt it was in an empty space, where no previous realities were placed on; no streets, no squares, no fountains; a space without places; biro-designed circles upon a white paper: this could be an approximate metaphor, but indeed it was not entirely, it was the material way through which it has been shown to us. So the second step I made, the second little piece loosely joined to the first one, was something like “is a city as a whole, or a neighbourhood, an empty space, where no previous place-based reality does exist?”. So my mind run to the place where I live, east suburb of Naples, and I taught “well, of course it is not Beverly Hills, but it is not an empty space”. So I tried to figure out where that image could be applied, and my mind looked at the center of my emergent city (I challenge whoever to drive out a specific law for Napoli urban configuration!). No way. It is full of places: that representation did not work yet. So all these places suffocated my need for a free space upon which it was possible to apply the drawing I was observing in real time, with my dissociated mind, and I let her run towards the hinterland, along the Asse Mediano; She soon felt better, She was running through wider spaces, where chaotic human settlements were more and more spaced out by large countries. No doubt countries are places too, especially for those who live and work upon them, but for many of those who are accustomed to cement, they in fact, and paradoxically, appear empty spaces, and finally…here we are!!! Acerra was the dimension I was looking for! But, unfortunately, someone else had already reached that promise land (I don’t know, maybe he was at Johnson’s public lecture two days ago!). The space for ants had been already deformed and reshaped by discounts, trading centres, McDonald’s, and some abusive dumping, sh…..t!, my neighbourhood-to-be had to remain a dream…or a nightmare!
Help me to answer to the questions: where does Steve come from? And where is he going to take us? I hope the answers we’ll give, will not be exclusively about space!

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6 commenti

  1. Gianluca ha detto:

    Ok, I’ll try to tune in with your questions and see if two minds are better then one.

    Places, buildings, economical interests, may be monopoles, may be lazy people habits that don’t want to change paths in their landscapes.
    They all seams to prevent Steven ideas of emergence to emerge.
    As my mind is focused in abstracting concepts from facts, I ‘ll give all these anti-emergence factors a single name. Let say ‘tradition’.

    The stronger and deeper a tradition is, the worst is for emerging dynamic to take (a) place.

    Let’s now find the opposite of tradition and see if it can help in our quest.
    Creation, seams to be the tradition opposite. Instead of comunicatng or expressing something that has been given to you from the past you create a brand new dynamic, a new shape to old ideas or a different value to a cultural symbol that was there before you arrived.

    Now one problem come to my mind. What happens when the tradition of a society is to create new values everyday ?

    I reffer to the art of ‘arrangiarsi’ practiced by many in naples as much as to the ‘society of the present’ that the information global machine is generating (where news don’t last for more then a week, and ideas are polled on a day by day schedule)

    So we have two conflicting factors. Traditions from the past that prevent any emerging creation to take place, and the new habits in which everything is reshaped every day, depending on the mood of the market or the bilions events happening and comunicated through the media.

    In a way it seams that a city like naples is ready more than other to deal with this new habit, on the other side emerging dynamic needs to become something else to generate new values for a society.
    So it seams that we should walk on the edge of emerging dynamics, working to let them arrive to a mature point in which they became established dynamics, and then start with a new one that is worth to develope.

    Now I admit clearly that all this may not make enough sense to help you out, and may be will only add more noise to our connected research, but this is what is bubling in my mind after our last meeting in capri.
    let see if any of us can find an emerging path.

  2. Rosanna De Rosa ha detto:

    My point is another one: does emergent behaviour is desirable? Steven clearly says that emergence concerns mass behaviour which is too adaptive to be cleaver. In that sense, emergence has nothing to do with awareness, nor with creation or innovation. It sounds pretty much a sort of bringing the behaviourism back in. I don’t really feel comfortable with it. It’s not a case that the emergence theory has been seen as the neocon bible (in Steven’s words). So let’s thing about direct and indirect implication of the (not so) new theory production. Any critical question about 311 Manhattan Public Service and geotagging principles??

  3. clara ciccioni ha detto:

    Come è successo a te, questo workshop con Steven Johnson è stato molto utile per la mia comprensione di alcune dinamiche che stanno attualmente avendo luogo nel web. Mi piacerebbe aiutarti a rispondere alle tue domande, ma le mie cornici di pensiero sono più disorganiche che mai in questo momento. Posso però intanto rendere conto di alcune analogie che involontariamente la mia “intelligenza emergente” ha operato a partire dalle categorie di Johnson.
    Cominciamo dal vicinato: proprio come le formiche, l’”organismo complesso” della città post-industriale tende a depositare la spazzatura in zone separate, il più lontano possibile dalla colonia e dalla regina, protetta dalle operaie non perché esista una dinamica di potere che sia stata loro “comunicata”, ma perché la regina è colei che assicura la riproduzione e, quindi, l’esistenza della colonia per un periodo molto più lungo rispetto alla vita di una singola formica.
    L’”elementare bisogno umano di sicurezza” e di protezione delle élites ha svuotato i centri delle metropoli seguendo una dinamica “emergente” di vicinato che ha portato ad esempio a quelle neighbourhood watching communities tanto efficaci nel tenere lontano dai verdi e spaziosi giardini dei quartieri abitati da consumatori abbienti e con reddito e istruzione omogenei (e, quindi, interessi condivisi e “senso della comunità”), le derive sociali delle strutture economiche e di potere. E, proprio come per le formiche, nessuno ha ordinato agli abitanti di armarsi contro il crimine urbano, ma sono stati essi stessi a sentirne l’esigenza, per l’istinto di conservazione della lunga vita della “colonia”.
    Le analogie tra le formiche e gli esseri umani sono in effetti inquietanti.
    Ma la faccia tirata dell’amico di Johnson trasferitosi a Los Angeles non lo convince, poiché quella città, obietta lui, si è sviluppata con interventi top-down, che hanno impedito che i marciapiedi continuassero ad essere l’esperienza più “epressiva” ed emergente della città, per trasferire le interazioni sociali sulle highways, dove non ci sono negozi da scoprire, la velocità è troppo elevata e la casualità è sacrificata. Le automobili hanno cancellato la possibilità di esprimersi e di vigilare sullo spazio urbano. Se si fossero preservati i marciapiedi, invece, l’emergenza sarebbe riuscita ad abolire le dinamiche del potere attraverso un vagare casuale per le strade della città (con l’occhio attento alla sicurezza di tutti), che ci avrebbe portato ad incontrare casualmente le tracce feromoniche (vedi scontrini fiscali) lasciate dall’ultimo acquirente di quella nuova boutique che non avevamo ancora notato nel nostro quartiere. Del resto che bisogno ha una comunità del potere quando, evitandoci l’onere di esplorare lo spazio, gli ingegneri ed i tecnologi dell’informazione hanno già progettato il miglior percorso da seguire, avendo rilevato il comportamento emergente e le preferenze del consumatore errante?
    Ma veniamo al tema della conferenza ed ai miei “istinti analogici”. Il thinking web di Johnson mi fa pensare al feedback emergente degli utenti spiati dalle aziende mentre navigano nella rete e alla società che consuma sé stessa di debordiana memoria. Ma probabilmente sono vittima di un abbaglio, poiché quella a cui mi riferisco è una dinamica bottom-up. E’ al Google ranking che dovrei pensare come modello, dice Johnson, un sistema che assottiglia sempre di più la quantità di informazione utilizzata dagli utenti, secondo meccanismi che rispondono solo ai bisogni ed agli istinti “semplici” di individui indipendenti, ma non troppo sapienti. Ma anche in questo caso mi vengono in mente i danni immensi prodotti dalla logica “emergente” della tematizzazione delle istanze operata da stampa e televisione e al fatto che all’origine di questi processi si trovano ancora una volta dinamiche di potere e mercato.
    Per fortuna anche a Johnson le strategie di mercato vengono in mente, quando si serve del modello dell’”economia auto-organizzante” di Paul Krugman per suggerire una strategia possibile. Posso tirare un sospiro e allontanare dalla mia mente il sospetto di determinismo economico che avevo creduto affliggere il mio immaginario. Nonostante ciò l’ottimismo di Johnson continua a non convincermi e la sua emergenza mi spaventa. Le botteghe di Firenze, con i “tessitori” di seta, riportano alla mente la disfatta degli abitanti dei quartieri operai di S. Frediano e S. Spirito contro l’inaccessibilità di un centro cittadino che la dinamica emergente di Ponte Vecchio ha modellato negli ultimi vent’anni ad uso e consumo dei compratori, ricchi fiorentini nel medio evo, ricchi “occidentali” nel terzo millennio. A questo punto chiedo aiuto anch’io perché inizio a sentirmi inadeguata ad afferrare il verbo johnsoniano…Sarà la mia tendenza “macrosociologica” a valutare lo stato complessivo del sistema o sarà il mio eccessivo livello di istruzione ad impedirmi di vedere la soluzione ai problemi della società e della rete nel comportamento emergente?

  4. mauro santaniello ha detto:

    Professor Eliano Pessa, during a seminary at Univ. of Salerno, said “emergence depends on the observer”. I would like to assume this sentence in two different meanings.
    First of all, to recognize pattern configurations is a goal-driven kind of social action. It depends on variables, methodologies and finding tools, hypothesis and technical instruments that we use. We could say that, in observing emergent phenomena, “What You See Is What You Got”. If we start looking for coherent units, coherent units is what we’ll find out.
    Of course, all of our social activities are based on this kind of pattern recognition: from neighbourhood micro-interactions to international scientific production. Social action cannot be without socially constructed cognitive frameworks that, at once, influence and are influenced by social actions. By this point of view there is no opposition between tradition and creation, they are both engaged in the way a given social practice is. Creative forces use tradition to create new traditions (or knowledge), or better said, tradition is a creative force as well as unexpected events. Properly, tradition is itself an emergent configuration too.
    What we know by our history is that tradition can be used both as a resource to deal with innovation and to install it in a given social context, and as a conservative rhetorical force to avoid, or control, social change.
    And this bring us to the second meaning I would like to give to Pessa’s sentence. Emergence depends on the observer because the observer can manipulate it.
    Mind the conditions that allow the emergence of a neighbourhood in Johnson’s way of view: random paths and possibility to swerve. These are political conditions that can be manipulated by top-down decisions. As Steven said “you cannot swerve on a highway”. So, a highway is a top-down tool to control what will emerge: it gives you a pre-determined path, avoid you to swerve, and in doing so it is an obstacle to micro-interaction by which we assume emergence comes. So, in decision-making process about where to build a new highway (or a railway) we decide what zones to keep out by that micro-interaction through which a higher social order will emerge. The history of our cities is full of examples about inclusion-exclusion mechanisms operated by architectural decisions. But the manipulation of emergence is even more visible in CMC environments. Computers give us the possibility to record and map a big quantity of variables, to operate immense calculations about their relationships, to observe an emergent system in real time as we was outside, far from it. Data-mining maybe is the best example of this possibilities. And as in market analysis, to get a map of the relationships between key variables and the whole system that emerge by them is the first step to control the system by controlling that variables. In CMC environments we can find a significant overlapping among those social actors who get the control of recording and mapping tools and those who get the control of architectural coding tools (mind telecoms).
    So, I think that the emergence model on one hand sounds to justify the inequality of resources distribution- taking on itself most of the heritance of social darwinism- and on the other hand it seems to offer a paradigm for strategic action to those who are in control of both real time information about variables’ trends, and access to architectural coding of computer infrastructures. Deciding what variables to pay attention to, monitoring them and the whole system that they generate, re-coding the system with an improving mathematical consciousness of the effects that variability has on the system, seems to me an ideal perfect loop of control, very useful for those involved in the architectural top-down programming. As well as all other kinds of cognitive configurations, emergence model can potentially offer findings and solutions about a wide rage of issues, but I am now afraid of the use of it by centralizing forces.

  5. mauro santaniello ha detto:

    Professor Eliano Pessa, during a seminary at Univ. of Salerno, said “emergence depends on the observer”. I would like to assume this sentence in two different meanings.
    First of all, to recognize pattern configurations is a goal-driven kind of social action. It depends on variables, methodologies and finding tools, hypothesis and technical instruments that we use. We could say that, in observing emergent phenomena, “What You See Is What You Got”. If we start looking for coherent units, coherent units is what we’ll find out.
    Of course, all of our social activities are based on this kind of pattern recognition: from neighbourhood micro-interactions to international scientific production. Social action cannot be without socially constructed cognitive frameworks that, at once, influence and are influenced by social actions. By this point of view there is no opposition between tradition and creation, they are both engaged in the way a given social practice is. Creative forces use tradition to create new traditions (or knowledge), or better said, tradition is a creative force as well as unexpected events. Properly, tradition is itself an emergent configuration too.
    What we know by our history is that tradition can be used both as a resource to deal with innovation and to install it in a given social context, and as a conservative rhetorical force to avoid, or control, social change.
    And this bring us to the second meaning I would like to give to Pessa’s sentence. Emergence depends on the observer because the observer can manipulate it.
    Mind the conditions that allow the emergence of a neighbourhood in Johnson’s way of view: random paths and possibility to swerve. These are political conditions that can be manipulated by top-down decisions. As Steven said “you cannot swerve on a highway”. So, a highway is a top-down tool to control what will emerge: it gives you a pre-determined path, avoid you to swerve, and in doing so it is an obstacle to micro-interaction by which we assume emergence comes. So, in decision-making process about where to build a new highway (or a railway) we decide what zones to keep out by that micro-interaction through which a higher social order will emerge. The history of our cities is full of examples about inclusion-exclusion mechanisms operated by architectural decisions. But the manipulation of emergence is even more visible in CMC environments. Computers give us the possibility to record and map a big quantity of variables, to operate immense calculations about their relationships, to observe an emergent system in real time as we was outside, far from it. Data-mining maybe is the best example of this possibilities. And as in market analysis, to get a map of the relationships between key variables and the whole system that emerge by them is the first step to control the system by controlling that variables. In CMC environments we can find a significant overlapping among those social actors who get the control of recording and mapping tools and those who get the control of architectural coding tools (mind telecoms).
    So, I think that the emergence model on one hand sounds to justify the inequality of resources distribution- taking on itself most of the heritance of social darwinism- and on the other hand it seems to offer a paradigm for strategic action to those who are in control of both real time information about variables’ trends, and access to architectural coding of computer infrastructures. Deciding what variables to pay attention to, monitoring them and the whole system that they generate, re-coding the system with an improving mathematical consciousness of the effects that variability has on the system, seems to me an ideal perfect loop of control, very useful for those involved in the architectural top-down programming. As well as all other kinds of cognitive configurations, emergence model can potentially offer findings and solutions about a wide rage of issues, but I am now afraid of the use of it by centralizing forces.

  6. Gennaro ha detto:

    From the Merriam-Webster dictionary of English language

    Contradiction:
    a: a proposition, statement, or phrase that asserts or implies both the truth and falsity of something b: a statement or phrase whose parts contradict each other

    example: Creation, se-e-ms to be the tradition opposite […] the tradition of a society is to create new values everyday (quoted from Gianluca’s comment line 18, 24-25)

    Anyway, I’m pleased to have the occasion to quote the scientific genius (quoted by Johnson himself as founding father, dead two years ago) who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1977, for his pioneering discovering of molecular emergence within dissipative structures in nature. Let’s take a look to the last page of one of his books…

    “Science is a collective enterprise. The solution to a scientific problem, in order to be accepted, has to satisfy needs and rigorous criteria. Anyway such constrictions do not eliminate creativity, but rather they represent challenges for it.
    […] During this dialogue, we transform what does appear as an obstacle into conceptual structures that give new meaning to the relationship between the knowing and the known”

    from Ilya Prigogine. “La fin de certitudes. Temps, chaos et les lois de la nature“. 1996 Editions Odile Jacob, Paris

    …why don’t we try to avoid the oldest algorithm of Western taught – dichotomy – and try to go on in understanding something?

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