More is Different

  • Frames

In 1993, Mr Sum witnessed how the internet turned the world upside down. This happened in the period from 1980, when he as an individual from the academic elite had access to it, until 1993 when everyone could use it to make his thoughts accessible to everyone else. That led to an explosive growth of users. And: more is different.

Where a decade earlier, only a few academics could use the internet on a daily basis, after 1993 everyone could. At least anyone who had access to the necessary infrastructure and who could afford the subscription. Governments immediately saw the possibilities and provided the necessary infrastructure. The business community provided access and other infrastructural services to consumers and businesses.

Everyone knows that more is different, C.E. thought. There is a difference between a private birthday party in a garden in Groningen for classmates and the identical party whose announcement has become a trending Twitter message.

Personally he had experienced how, as a 19-year-old, when he visited the Sistine Chapel he had, being one of the four visitors, the luxury to lie down on a bench in order to admire the ceiling unhindered. But also that, on a new acquaintance 25 years later, he had to let himself be pressed, like one of many sheep, together in a flock, in order to undergo the masterpiece again, this time in a claustrophobic mood and with cramp in his neck.

More is different. Anderson was not focusing on the decline of elite privileges, but on the benefits of being able to look at groups of individuals through different glasses. Groups as individual communities that are created by simply bringing together networked individuals.

That type of gain complements the gain that analysis brings. It is the gain of recognizing emergent phenomena, such as the development of disciplines that see their research domains arise from perspectives, which take the more-is-different effect for granted (think of disciplines that mainly look at atoms, molecules , materials, machines, organs, organisms, people, churches, states, languages, disciplines, virtues, etc., etc.)

The Internet and its users allow the rapid emergence of new such network units that invite all kinds of new perspectives. Too much to mention, actually. From the research world evoked by the work of Durkheim, Douglas and Wildavsky, I accept for the time being four perspectives that can be used for compartmentalization: (i) the social group (with a forest fire architecture), (ii) the administration, legislator and enforcement (with a hierarchical architecture), (iii) the economy (with a logistic architecture) and (iv) the guardians of evidence-based knowledge (with a mixed architecture).

This compartmentalisation is an aid for keeping the reality that is the model for a toy world manageable. But about that elsewhere.