Finally finished Steven Johnson’s Emergence today. It started off pretty interesting, talking a lot about self-organizing systems, from ant colonies to cities to software. All good stuff. And that was probably the first half of the book.
But then Johnson starts talking about the Web and it starts to fall apart. The book was published in 2001 and the fact that it feels so outdated is great evidence of how rapidly things change today. Johnson is pretty enamored with Slashdot and uses it over and over again as an example of how the Web will operate, the idea being that all our opinions will get bundled together to make ‘clusters’ that we’ll each spend our time in. This would be a better argument if Slashdot actually based its articles on user ratings, rather than just its comments. Another example he cites is Epinions which is all but gone now…at least, the good parts of it are gone.
Actually his best arguments are when he talks about eBay and how it self regulates via users rating users. But still, he talks about how in 2005 we won’t care that The Sopranos is on HBO, since all our media will be delivered via the web anyway. Instead, we’ll see what’s playing in the “Organized crime fiction” cluster, or what have you.
What Johnson never factored in was litigation from the RIAA and MPAA. If these organizations had embraced the web and its distribution methods rather than trying to oppress them, we might be living in Johnson’s world now. He did get some things right, for sure. Tivo was new enough when he wrote the book that he had to explain what it was, and he talked about its impact on advertising. And in fact made some great points about advertising (basically that a person might watch ads if the ads are well done and pertinent to the viewer).
Johnson talks a lot about video games and SimCity and The Sims and so forth. As a game geek it was fun to read about this, until he started talking about how cool The Sims Online was going to be (but to be fair he was basing his thoughts on the advance-hype for the game…of course it shipped horribly broken).
So is it worth reading? Sadly, probably not, unless you read it for the fun of hearing predictions gone wrong. The early parts are interesting but you can probably find the subject explored in more detail elsewhere. Emergence would’ve been a fun read in 2001, but now its just a little sad…