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The JC’s amateur guide to systems theory
Martin Sheen as an emergent property of water, yesterday.
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/ɪˈməːdʒ(ə)ns/ (n.)

A property of a system or aggregated whole which is not shared by components of the system or the constituents of that body.

Joe Norman has a great example of emergence and irreducibility at Risky Conversations: If you try to break a Möbius loop into smaller parts, you lose its one-sidedness. Each of its segments has two sides. You can join any of its segments together, and they still have two sides. It is only when you twist the emerging structure and join it back on itself that the second side vanishes.

So, “wetness” is a property of water, but not of a molecule of H20. “Consciousness” is a property of a brain, but not of the neural activity that comprises it.[1] “Culture” is an emergent property, too: generated by, but not subsisting in, the behaviour of individuals interacting together within the organisation.

Bureaucracy” is an emergent property of a financial services organisation, not the individual communications within that organisation that make up the organisation. Well, not many of them, anyway.

Emergence of a property of components

Nonetheless in each case emergence is a property of the whole system, but the what creates the emergence is not holistic system where it presents, but its individual components, where it does not.

So, changing an emergent property is tricky.  It is a classic systems problem.

Understanding emergence is a clue to why cultural change in an organisation is so hard, and why top-down attempts to change culture so frequently fail.

You cannot command a tide to retreat,[2] nor water not to be wet.

Yet we all know of institutions who, with optimistic spirit, have instituted “bureaucracy hotlines” where staff could, in essence, denounce bureaucracy whenever they encounter it: “see it, say it, sort it”. We know in our bones these are doomed to fail. Oh, you can see it, sure. Everyone can see it. Saying it takes a bit more spleen, or disregard for one’s onward trajectory; sorting it falls foul of the pragmatist’s prayer.

For every particular there is always some kind of special pleading that some other stakeholder can wheel out to justify the status quo, usually by reference to someone or something elsewhere in the hierarchy, or some hypothetical risk, precedent or scar tissue sedimented so deeply into the fossil record of the organisation that excavation is impossible. In any case, these things are beyond any individual’s ability to fix, or even influence. All the levers they can control recommend the same course: do what we have always done.

However tempting it may seem to an administrator, you cannot change the wider system, except by changing each of the individual interactions from which the property emerges. You can’t tell a cup of water to stop being wet. You must change the conditions in which water molecules interact and which makes them combine to create wetness: make it colder, or hotter, or mix other molecules with H20.

Nor can you remove bureaucracy from an organisation by telling the workers to be less bureaucratic, while keeping the hierarchy structure under which being conservative and doing what you have always done is the safest course of action. Every individual action may be explicable — if a bit conservative — viewed in isolation. You can’t see the bureaucracy in it, and the individual may feel she has no alternative, given the hierarchical structures, but to act that way.

Emergence is not the same as complexity

Emergent behaviour is often an important component in complex systems — for example, the phenomenon of “life” as studied in biology, is an emergent property of chemistry, and psychological phenomena (like consciousness) may be said to emerge from neurobiological phenomena that don’t possess them — but emergence is not the same as complexity.

Water is wet (an emergent property not possessed by its component molecules), but not complex. Metal is shiny and malleable, but not complex.

Properties can and do emerge from simple algorithmic processes which do pretty weird and wonderful things, but are still not complex. Conway’s Game of Life creates all kinds of ostensibly “live” artefacts, but even though they seem to glide, and shoot missiles and do all kinds of mechanistically impressive things, they are not complex. They run on deterministic rails.

Where there is complexity — where genuinely autonomous entities operate in an inchoate environment with imperfect data and ambiguous or changing rules, then emergent properties certainly comes into their own. But one should not confuse “emergent” and “complex” (as mathematicians are prone to do).

Off the diving board into the pool of ill-considered speculation

Nascent theory: reducibility is to irreducibility as complicatedness is to complexity — only looked at from opposite ends of the telescope. Complication can be predicted, and solved, from first principles or the initial state; complexity cannot.

Likewise, a reducible phenomenon can be atomised into its fundamental components with no loss of essential qualities or properties; an irreducible one cannot — some of those properties emerge at a level of abstraction higher than the smallest components.

On John Connor and big data

Hence the irony in — paradox? — about the rapacious tech companies and their are use of your data. Go ahead; knock yourself out: use DuckDuckGo. Google won’t care. It cares not about you and your data consumption, but the the pattern that emerges from the aggregate of billions of people's data consumption. No one cares about you. Your habits are probably perfectly reflected in the corpus, with or without you.==See also==


  1. This paradox has derailed the philosophy of mind for hundred of years.
  2. Only a Cnut would do that.