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Friday, July 23, 2004

Emergence as a Collective Experience  

People are usually comfortable with the idea that emergent learning is about learning through social interaction. However Michael Feldstein’s reflection on Steven Johnson’s book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software puts an interesting and unconventional twist to the concept. Learning emerging from social interaction is collectively learned, i.e. the individual learning is almost insignificant. Colonies of ants exemplify quite well how a summation of “dumb” individual contributions can produce an intelligent behavior.
 
It really makes sense to me. When we look closely at how we act in our daily lives, we can notice that we are essentially adapting to what our neighbors (people we interact with) are doing. This co-evolution of behaviors is almost unnoticeable at the individual level but is indeed oriented towards finding one’s place in a social environment in order to maximize one’s contribution to that same environment.
 
Another example is fish banks. It only takes one fish to detect the presence of a predator for the entire bank to change direction in a second. Of course, not every fish is aware of the predator’s presence. Most of them just instinctively follow their neighbors, which is still a collectively coherent and intelligent reaction to a perturbation.

Our Western individualism makes it difficult for us to “give up” the conviction that we learn individually to some abstract collective learning. We certainly don’t know enough about societal learning. Via OLDaily

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