Thursday, December 4, 2008


Of networks, classes, hierarchy, groups, and the major transitions in evolution.
(warning, not-very-well-thought-out stream of consciousness to follow)

Like a lot of people, I'm currently reading Clay Shirky's book 'Here Comes Everybody'. One of the dominant themes of the book is the formation of groups of people, in particular groups of people that appear to rapidly self-assemble on the Web and produce some interesting product or behavior. This idea of the auto-genesis of complex systems is taking me back to about 9 years ago (yikes) to a time when I was thinking a lot about evolution. Way back then, I was trying to think up better ways to intentionally evolve teams of independent units (e.g. robot control systems) that had to interoperate with one another to achieve some group purpose (e.g. win robocup). My thinking (and a great paper about chickens) lead me in the direction of multi-level selection theory, but that is another story. Among the other people around me at the time that were also thinking a lot about evolution, was one Pietro Speroni.

Pietro was working on a new Artificial Chemistry (a subject I know next to nothing about) with which he was exploring biologically-inspired mechanisms for automatically generating increasingly complex systems. The key aspect of his work that has been trying to creep up to the surface of my consciousness since I started with this Shirky book was a focus on defining his simulated molecules such that they could link together to auto-generate boundaries akin to cell membranes. This was considered the key simulation behavior of interest because the genesis of each new boundary, e.g. the boundary that defines an organelle in a cell, might be considered another step up the ladder of complexity. With each new boundary, a new kind of thing emerges in the system with which the other things can begin to interact with in new ways and thus complexity can increase. Systems like this are interesting because one such system appears to have generated the most fascinating thing imaginable, us. The fuzzy connection dangling around here is between the evolution of complexity in the abstract as Pietro was studying, and the very real evolution of complex groups within human society that is being made possible by the social Web.

Each new user-generated node in the network, each blog posted, each tag applied, each photo shared - each captured communication - can be seen to either implicitly or explicitly define a new group of people. Such groups could contain the people that used the same tag in, who tagged the same website, who 'liked' the same photo etc. Groups could also contain 'friends' of people who tagged a particular photo or people who tagged a website that was tagged by other people who tagged another website ad infitum. Within the increasingly large and multifaceted network we are (most often accidentally) creating via our contributions to the Web, human groups of seemingly limitless complexity already exist and this trend seems only to be increasing. Do these groups have any relationship to the groups of molecules defined via physical relationships that Pietro's model was emulating? Is there anything fundamental going on here?

I don't know. Just had to get that out of my head.