For a book that begins with an account of the habits of slime mold, Steven Johnson's Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (Scribner, 2001) isn't wanting for big ideas. Johnson, cofounder of the Web zine Feed, brings his sensibility as a culture critic to the task of illuminating "a secret history of decentralized thinking."
Johnson offers more than an examination of emergent-behavior theory, which holds that sophisticated structures result from simple agents following simple rules. Instead, he tells the story of the emergence of emergence itself, and of the pioneers and thinkers who have contributed to the theory over the past 40 years, in such disparate realms as biology, brain science, urban studies, and software design. In describing how these complex fields of inquiry ultimately connect to each other to create a higher-level order, Johnson tells a larger story as well, one about how idea revolutions really come about.
In all emergent systems, Johnson writes, intelligence resides at the street level, whether you're talking about harvester ants — capable of great feats of coordination and improvisational problem solving despite limited cognitive skills — or workers in the industrial cauldron of 19th-century England. It's a particularly powerful concept in the Digital Age, given the Web's capacity for group intelligence, and it's behind some of the most compelling leadership thinking and organizational designs of the past decade.
1. The universal laws of science do a pretty good job of explaining how the world works, and that includes the business world. In The Natural Laws of Business: How to Harness the Power of Evolution, Physics, and Economics to Achieve Business Success (Currency/Doubleday, 2001), Richard Koch makes a connection between the classics (Newtonian order, Darwinian natural selection, Einstein's theory of relativity), the "new sciences" (quantum physics, complexity, new economics), and today's edgiest business and management theory.
2. Looking for meaningful work and a good life? You can't go wrong following Tom McMakin's recipe for success in Bread and Butter: What a Bunch of Bakers Taught Me About Business and Happiness (St. Martin's Press, 2001), a readable and nourishing new book by the former COO of the Great Harvest Bread Company. (Hint: You can't have one without the other.)
3. The past five years of the new economy have been a raucous celebration of bold change agents bent on undoing the status quo. We should know: Many of them have appeared in the pages of this magazine. But in Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work (Harvard Business School Press, 2001), Debra E. Meyerson focuses on a different kind of company insurgent, such as the vice president dedicated to bringing gender equity to the executive suite, or the manager intent on working the roles of father and husband into his career path. Meyerson's radicals are part of their organization yet apart from it, tolerated more than embraced, committed to the company's success yet at odds with its rules. Walking that line, says Meyerson, is not flashy. But it's where you'll find the real stuff of change.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.