The Common Denominator between Brains, Cities and the Internet (..oh..and ants too)

If you took the time to look at an ant colony..really look at it…you’d be amazed. In his book Emergence, Steven Johnson did just that. And here’s what he found. Ant colonies are perfectly designed. The food supply of the colony is the perfect distance away from trash pile, and both are strategically placed to be the greatest possible distance from the ants’ graveyard. It’s as if some ant mastermind somewhere took the time to plot out the colony design on some ant-sized draftboard. Of course, that didn’t happen. What did happen is that even ant sized brains can remember a set of simple rules and over time, even with the complexity of thousands of ants doing their thing, a sort of order emerges. Patterns that look to be deliberated planned emerge out of complex and seemingly chaotic activity.

The Organized Cesspool: Manchester

In the 1800’s, the industrial revolution caused the city of Manchester, England to explode in size, from 24,000 in 1773 to 250,000 by 1850. The growth was not steered by any form of urban planning. Factories sprung up anywhere. Factories needed workers, so new neighborhoods, many shantytowns housing the poorest of the poor seeking work, suddenly sprouted up. People need some basic form of support, so new shops and services suddenly appeared. All this happened without a plan in place, a seemingly hopeless mishmash of urban development. Alex De Toqueville described it like this, “From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.”  Dickens was even less kind, ” What I have seen has disgusted and astonished me beyond all measure.”

One of the visitors to Manchester saw something different, however. Frederich Engels, who would become co-author of the Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, came to Manchester to see first hand the horrific struggles of the Industrial-era working class. Certainly he found what he came looking for, but he also saw something that surprised him. There, in the squalid chaos that was Manchester, he found a strange sort of order that had emerged. Manchester had developed so that the factory owners that lived in the upper class neighborhoods could live for years in the city without seeing a working class neighborhood. Thoroughfares, businesses and social institutions emerged so that the city just “worked” for it’s inhabitants. Just like the ants, the citizens of Manchester had some social rules that dictated the pattern of the city that emerged.

Brains and Cities: Evolved Functionality

citybrainThis natural evolution of cities is the subject of a recent study that comes from Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute. The finding? Cities are organized like human brains.As cities grow, they not only increase in physical size, they also become more densely interconnected. As brains increase in complexity from species to species, you don’t just get more neurons, you also get more efficient neurons. Both can handle more traffic.

The study used Seattle and Chicago as examples. You couldn’t just take Seattle and triple it to become Chicago. The traffic corridors wouldn’t be able to handle the increased flow. There wouldn’t be enough on ramps and off ramps, and the ones that did exist would be would be too small. The services and support needed to accommodate the population wouldn’t be efficiently planned. As cities grow, they evolve to meet the needs of their citizens. Every time I visit New York, it amazes me that Manhattan can work at all. It seems to be an impossibly delicate act of magic..keeping that many people on an island fed and functioning. This is one of the reasons high growth cities struggle to keep up with infrastructure such as required freeways and public transit – they’re growing faster than the infrastructure, handcuffed by the need for administrative approval, can change to support them.

And if I think Manhattan is a miracle, the complexity of what the human brain has to deal with daily represents a feat of impressiveness several magnitudes greater. Indeed, the functioning of the human brain is so complex, all the combined efforts of science have barely scratched the surface of how the damned thing actually works.

The Emergence of the Internet

This common theme of functional evolution and patterns emerging from complexity is also playing out currently on the Internet. Much like Industrial age Manchester, the Internet is growing exponentially without any master plan. And yet, it seems to work. And, as the internet evolves, just like brains and cities, it becomes more interconnected. Functionality is increased through API’s and mash-ups. The internet is evolving into an incredibly complex ecosystem that is remarkably workable. And, like all complex systems, the emergence of workable patterns will depend on a handful of universal rules: the ability to find information, the ability to do things, the ability to talk to people, the ability to have fun and the ability to buy stuff. That’s all we really want and the Internet will naturally emerge in the way best suited to accomplish those simple goals.

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