Book Notes: “The Architecture of Emergence”

Subtitle: The Evolution of Form in Nature and Civilisation

By Michael Weinstock

This is a book about how forms evolve over time. It takes a very broad perspective on architecture:

“All forms of nature and all forms of civilisation have ‘architecture,’ an arrangement of material in space and over time that determines their shape, size, behavior and duration, and how they come into being. Energy, information and material flow through all the forms of the world, and human forms and culture have coevolved and developed within those flows.”

The tour of the emergence of forms starts with “the processes and phenomena of the natural world” (the morphology of the earth’s surface, it’s climate, lifeforms), moving through cultural constructs such as language, and ending with cities and the information systems they enable. The final chapter (“Emergence”) deals with transcending critical thresholds of stability (e.g., climate change) and the effects this would have on civilization.

The book covers a lot of ground, and I sometimes felt it delved into too much detail in topics that seemed tangentially related to the central idea of emergence. Still, after the first few chapters it’s obvious there is a pattern at play: each successive chapter introduces an increasingly narrower system — nature, the earth’s climate, the earth’s surface, life forms, metabolism, humans, culture, cities — and then describes how emergence manifests in each. This structure highlights what these nested systems have in common, suggesting that emergence is a universal property.

I was particularly intrigued by the second-to-last chapter (“The Forms of Information, Energy and Ecology”), which deals with the relationship between cities, energy, and information — cities as living organisms that coevolved our information systems:

“The integration of the collective metabolism of cities into complex hierarchical systems acted as a positive feedback on the evolutionary development of information systems. Graphical and numerical notation, calculation and writing arose from the regulation of the fluctuating flows of energy and materials, and the complexity of the system increased commensurately.”

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