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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

emergent behavior lesson

Papert had been discussing how to build a computer model of Hanoi's notoriously chaotic traffic. He found it an interesting instance of a theme closely associated with his work: "emergent behavior," or the way that large groups of agents following simple rules, with no central leader, can spontaneously create sophisticated systems and activities. Examples include schools of fish, anthills, bee swarms, and, apparently, Vietnamese motorbike drivers.


One thing about emergent phenomena that the pioneers of the field tended not to emphasize is that they are often unkind to their constituent agents: Ant colonies are not very solicitous of the lives of individual ants. Hanoi traffic is a fascinating emergent phenomenon, but it didn't take good care of Seymour Papert when he became one of its constituent agents. As a result, the world risks losing one of its greatest thinkers about emergent phenomena.

Read the full story in the Boston Globe (free registration required).

The fine line between walking across a Hanoi street may be similar to that fine line between an individual and a group. How much individuality do you give up to be a member of a group?

Apparently, the flip side is telling us that when the group does not care for the individual, we should be cautious.

What do you think about this?

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