Emergence is Frikkin' Magic

A bunch of individually dumb ants make a scary-smart colony. The unthinking process of evolution can create creatures that appear almost intentionally designed. Beautiful, symmetrical snowflakes spontaneously form as they fall from the sky.

This is called emergence. And it's awesome.

As a former game designer, I took emergence for granted. (Think how the complexity of Go or Chess "emerges" from just a few simple rules.) If anything, "emergence" just seemed like a weird but useful game design concept. I'd forgotten how counterintuitive – even seemingly obviously wrong – the idea is.

But then I read Mitchell Resnick's Turtles, Termites & Traffic Jams. In it, he shows how emergence can be behind the greatest philosophical questions: Where does the mind come from? Where does truth come from? Why do good people do bad things? Mitch also talked about how he taught kids about emergence, and how the kids responded.

To them, it felt like literal magic.

I think the "magic" metaphor actually describes emergence quite well. Coz with emergence...

1. you get something from nothing.

Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a seemingly empty hat, "emergence" seems to create complexity out of thin air.

2. it breaks all your expectations.

The whole is completely different from the sum of its parts. The social sciences have shown us that rational individuals can lead to irrational group behavior, a collection of amateurs can make expert decisions, and a society full of tolerant people can be, altogether, viciously intolerant.

3. it never repeats the same trick twice.

In most of our day-to-day lives, randomness is bad. Randomness messes up our schedules, machines, and processes. But emergent behavior actually requires randomness – evolution can't happen without random mutation – and so, you'll never know exactly what you'll get.

And, the biggest similarity to magic...

We're all in the audience, and we've no clue how it's done. (sidenote: There's several problems for the science of emergence. First off, the word itself is poorly defined. In a future post, I'd love to attempt defining emergence concretely, and guess at some theoretical mechanisms for how emergence, uh, emerges.)

Again, I used to just think of emergence of just some strange, useful game design term. But as this PBS Nova clip puts it, emergence could be a fundamental law of the universe. An equal and opposite force to the sad, everything-will-fade-away law of entropy.

And we don't know how it's done.

But unlike magic, I don't think us figuring it out will "ruin the trick". At worst, it'll only make the world more magical. At best, we can use it to create our own magic, for real, no tricks.