TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Emergence

What is most interesting about the Memex is that it is an emergent system made up of local decisions made by a large number of individuals. Each of us is just going about our normal course of (blogging) life making decisions on what content we like, whom to link to, what taxonomy to use for our personal directory, and so on. But out of these local decisions comes a bottom-up system that is beyond what a Yahoo or Google can ever hope of creating both because it cannot be cached and because it is continually evolving.

Writes Steven Johnson in his book Emergence: If youre building a system designed to learn from the ground, a system where macrointelligence and adaptability derive from local knowledge,there are five fundamental principles you need to follow. Steven Johnson discusses the principles in the context of harvester ants. We will apply these principles in the context of the Memex.

The first principle is: More is different. It is only by observing the entire system that the global behavior becomes apparent. Individuals (think bloggers) do not know the big picture as they keep doing their routine of linking, commenting and outlining it is as if they are working at the street level, with little understanding of the topology of the city.

The second principle is: Ignorance is useful. Better to build a densely interconnected system with simple elements, and let the more sophisticated behavior trickle up. Bloggers do their bit in terms of the simple acts of categorising and connecting, without resort of any complex algorithms or top-down instructions.

The third principle is: Encourage random encounters. These encounters are individually arbitrary, but because there are so many individuals in the system, they allow the individuals to gauge and alter the macrostate of the system itself. In the world of bloggers, this translates to the people or content they connect to via search engines or the ones who land up at the blogs. This is over and beyond the ones that are friends or friends of friends. This opens up new content worlds and ideas.

The fourth principle is: Look for patterns in the signs. Just as ants look for patterns in pheromone secretions, bloggers can look for patterns in sites like Blogdex and Daypop, which provide an idea of the popular memes. Technoratis links to new and promising bloggers is another example. This knack for pattern detection allows metainformation to circulate through the mind: signs about signs.

The fifth principle is: Pay attention to your neighbours. Local information can lead to global wisdom. Bloggers are not putting up a random collection of links, they are basing their decisions on what their neighbourhood does. This provides a feedback mechanism into the system.

Thus, local decisions made by bloggers is what enables the formation of the global Memex. This is emergence at work.

Tomorrow: Small Worlds

TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.