A couple weeks ago, as I was juggling books on symbiosis, Benkler’s work on the open source movement, and a few other things, it struck me that one thing connecting all these different examples together was profligacy: the ability to burn through a lot of some kind of resource to advance. Species evolve by turning out gigantic numbers of individuals, most of whom die without passing on their genes. Peer-reviewed open source production systems can enlist very large numbers of people, with little regard to their long-term satisfaction or involvement in the project. Seti@Home and A-life projects can burn through processor cycles.

Turns out that Timothy Burke has been thinking along similar lines:

[T]here is an expectation deeply rooted in most modernist traditions that highly productive or useful systems achieve their productivity through some kind of optimality, some tight fit between purpose and result, in short, through efficiency.

My colleague Mark Kuperberg has perceptively observed that Adam Smith has to be seen as an early prophet of emergence—what could be a better example than his “bottom-up” view of the distributed actions of individuals leading to a structural imperative, the “invisible hand”—but as digested through the discipline of economics, Smith’s view was increasingly and to my mind necessarily parsed in terms of models requiring those agents to be tightly optimizing.

That’s what’s so interesting about both simulated and real-world examples of emergence: they create their useful results, their general systemic productivity, through excess, not efficiency. They’re not optimal, not at all, at least not in their actual workings. The optimality or efficiency, if such there is, comes in the relatively small amount of labor needed to set such systems in motion. Designing a system where there is a seamless fit between purpose, action and result is profoundly difficult and vastly more time-consuming than setting an overabundance of cheap, expendable agents loose on a problem. They may reach a desired end-state more slowly, less precisely, and more expensively in terms of overall energy expenditure than a tight system that does only that which it needs to do, but that excess doesn’t matter. They’re more robust to changing conditions if less adapted to the specificities of any given condition.

[To the tune of Led Zeppelin, “Misty Moutain Hop,” from the album Box Set (Disc 2).]