Book review: Emergence

Steven Johnson: Emergence.

The book includes some excellent stories, for example the one about Alan Turing’s death because he was gay, which I hadn’t heard before (may everyone involved suffer in hell), and Frans de Waal’s chimpanse stories, which I’d already heard on IT Conversation. Also, the description of biofeedback and neurofeedback machines which lets you see your brain in action made me want to buy one.

And there are some interesting perspectives, such as the history of the evolution of cities, and how it relates to the Renaissance and sharing of ideas, how cities have grown and learned, and how this relates to the internet.

But I was really bothered by the writing, which makes frequent use of strawman arguments, spending several paragraphs outlining a standpoint that no-one takes, just so that it can argue against it. And lots of words and effort put into puns and jokes that add nothing, instead of leaving them out, or working them into the text. Johnson could learn a lot from Gladwell and Surowiecki, who are great at keeping longer prose packed with information, or Lakoff, who is great at writing clearly and short.

In the end, while I understand what Johnson is saying, I wasn’t left with a clear picture of the idea he is trying to communicate.


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