Thursday, 1 April 2010
I keep coming back to the idea of emergence as a way of thinking about creativity. As well as being used in quite general ways, in everyday conversation, emergence has a particular meaning in relation to what might be called complex dynamic systems.
Some biological examples of this kind of system are ant colonies, beehives, human bodies, human brains, weather systems, and ecological systems in nature. Not without controversy, the features and behaviours of this kind of system have also been described in human-created systems such as cities, neighbourhoods, crowds, and financial systems. What all of these types of system have in common is that they are made up of numerous components (too many to measure, and with some degree of difference from each other), and these components are all connected in multiple ways (ie. one component might be connected with ten different parts of itself to thirty other, different systems). On top of this, these multiple, and multipley-connected, components, are all interacting, all of the time. They're interacting only with what's immediately connected to them, though (they have no idea what's going on in other parts of the system). The point of all this connection and interaction is that it makes the system continually responsive to changes in its environment; as things around it change, little bits of the system can immediately respond and make changes that will enable it to survive. This type of system is also open to its environment - it's not a closed system, but is constantly exchanging matter and energy with what's around it.
Two other things are important in understanding these systems. The first is the way it starts off (its 'initial conditions') and the second is that any such system is always dynamic, always in movement, and, it moves through time. When you put all these things together, you get emergence. What the hell is that, you may ask?
Emergence is actually very difficult to explain and understand if you want try to see it in a step by step way. The basic idea is that, when you have multiple components within this kind of system interacting through time in response to the immediate environment, every now and again some new kind of order, such as a new behaviour, for example, just suddenly seems to appear, as if from nowhere. The flock of birds suddenly changes direction, the financial market collapses, the mess of thoughts in your mind suddenly produces clarity. What makes this kind of occurence different from other processes is that you can't track the thing that emerges back, in a straightforward, linear way, to the things that gave rise to it.
Let's take the emergence of a thought or idea as an example. You can't say, ok, I thought that thing, and then that one, and then that one, and those three thoughts added up together make the three I currently see. One minute there are thoughts, and bits of thoughts, and non-thought feelings, and bodily movements (making a cup of tea, shuffling your papers), all mixed up together, and most of it only half conscious - and the next moment, you suddenly see the answer/know what to do/can write the sentence.
I want to build on this idea in relation to human creativity, which is why I've begun trying to explain it. If it seems confusing, that's normal. Ideas about emergence and dynamic systems are always hazy - that's one of the great things about these ideas - they absolutely resist a clear, step by step explanation. What I'm trying to explore in talking about creativity is, by its very nature, hazy, full of the unexpected and unseen. It seems to me that this requires a different kind of language, and a different kind of thinking, to the talk and thinking that always tries to wrap things up neatly....