1. On Iain Sinclair, ant colonies, generative music and emergent systems

    Posted April 6, 2010 in books  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve recently started to notice a new pattern forming in my reading habits. Well, maybe it’s been around for ages and has just become more evident since I started using this blog for book reviews. Either way, it seems to have something to do with memory, emergence, cities, complexity and ants.

    Back in late 2009 I finished reading Haunted Weather, a collection of essays about 21st century soundscapes by David Toop. In that book, Toop touches on how modern sound-processing software (Max/MSP, Supercollider) allows music to be created using genetic algorithms. The unpredictable, evolving nature of these algorithms leads to music which is unpredictable and ever-changing: generative music.

    During the section on generative music Toop refers to another book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by Stephen Johnson. I told Cathy that I was after a copy of this book, and it presently turned up as a Christmas gift.

    I didn’t start reading it straight away, though. At the time I was reading the Iain Sinclair-compiled London: City of Disappearances, on loan from my friend Jamie. In London: City of Disappearances, fiction and non-fiction from contributors including JG Ballard, Bill Drummond, Alan Moore and Rachel Lichtenstein loosely circles around the central theme of disappearance and loss in London.

    After reading that I moved on to The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, which was borrowed from my friend Lindsey. Gladwell has a model for describing the viral spread of cultural phenomena, where Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen propel memes into mainstream awareness. The process via which cultural phenomena “tip” is portrayed as a decentralised one, which usually lacks conscious co-ordination.

    When I was done with The Tipping Point I started reading Emergence. Its author, Steven Johnson, introduces the scientific phenomenon of emergence, where systems develop complex behaviours at a macro level even though system components are governed by far simpler and more basic rules. Before long, Emergence made me start noticing that the series of books I’d been reading recently had a common thread, even though on the surface they seemed extremely dissimilar.

    In Emergence, Stanford’s Deborah Gordon describes her studies of ant colonies over the course of their entire lifespans. She observed that ant colonies follow a consistent behavioural pattern, becoming gradually less aggressive and more predictable as they age. This happens over a period of roughly fifteen years, even though individual ants (the queen excepted) live for only one. So ant colonies have a “memory” which exists at the macro level (the colony) as opposed to micro level (individual ants).

    This trait of ant colonies can be found in human cities, whose memories also outlive those of their individual inhabitants. Cities have patterns which persist through the ages: a time traveller from Florence circa 800 years ago would find much of the modern city (including its language) alien, but would still be familiar with the locations of trades such as the silk merchants of Por Santa Maria.

    The persistence of these patterns in the face of continual physical change means that cities can be seen as memory storage devices. Lewis Mumford is quoted (from 1961’s The City In History) as saying that “the great city is the best organ of memory man has yet created”. Reading all this made me see London: City of Disappearances in a new light. Its underlying theme, that London is defined as much by what has vanished by what now exists, resonated with the idea of the city as an “organ of memory”, and the book itself was an example of that “organ of memory” at work.

    In some ways City of Disappearances is a work not of Sinclair and his contributors but of London itself. London wants to be remembered: as a system, it must be remembered in order to survive. And to be remembered, it must inspire fascination among those who live in it and who visit it, fascination that in turn inspires research, document and contribute to the collective memory of the city.

    Happy that Emergence had given me a new way to look at the Iain Sinclair compendium , I kept on reading and soon found myself rethinking my understanding of The Tipping Point too. The “tipping point” described by Gladwell is a phase transition triggered not by centralised direction (e.g. a big-budget marketing campaign) but by a complex set of interactions. In other words, the tipping point is itself an emergent behaviour.

    This made me feel a bit more charitable towards The Tipping Point. Emergent systems are difficult to describe, especially when human beings are the micro-level parts. Malcolm Gladwell describes a kind of behaviour in human societies that is actually quite complex, and does so in a way that is accessible and engaging: no mean feat.

    The pattern developing in my reading habits is leading me towards further exploration of cities, communities, markets – and the web itself – as complex systems where real change is driven not by charismatic individuals (hello Steve Jobs) but by emergent properties which are less predictable and less easy to control.

    And I might even be tempted to start learning more about ant colonies, even though I’ve got a bad history with them: the last time I came across an ant colony I tried to destroy it, but next time I might not be so hasty.