I like Charles Mudede’s scaled down explanation of emergence (“Interlace in Dubai,” SLOG, 3 December 2008):
In the theory of emergence it is understood that complexity has a limit. For example, when the population of an ant colony reaches a certain point, 80,000 or so, changes begin to happen. Army ants swarm another colony or lots of ants move out and wander or start a new colony. What is clear is one behavior ends and another one begins.
One controlling logic relinquishes to a subsequent controlling logic. Emergence is a discontinuity in growth.
I don’t know that he is right to characterize this as “complexity having a limit.” An emergent property is an aufhebung: a simultaneous preservation and transformation. The emergent property doesn’t sweep aside all previous behavior, but preserves the original behavior and builds a new layer or interpretive characteristics on top of it. I think of “the invisible hand” of capitalist markets here. People don’t stop bargaining when market clearing happens. People continue to negotiate, clip coupons, shop around, seek out sales, innovate, invest and compete. Market clearing is a second order interpretation of the ground level behavior that persists just under this interpretive overlay. Or in the example of the prisoners’ dilemma, the participants don’t cease to be rational outcome maximizes when the logic of suboptimum outcomes takes over. Their goals and reasoning stay the same. If anything, by preserving all the original complexity and adding a superstructure of new behavior, emergence is complexity unbound from its first order confines.