An essay written in 2008 in the discipline of Anthropology and Sociology exploring the Internet as both an emergent phenomenon and a complex adaptive system, as a framework to come to terms with the immense impact the Internet has had on human society worldwide. More writing on the emergent social, cultural and technological configurations the Internet is ceaselessly bringing into existence coming soon.

The Internet Conceptualised As An Emergent Phenomena And a Complex Adaptive System

The Internet, Complex Adaptive Systems, Emergence, and Anthropology and Sociology

New vistas of analysis are opening up to social scientists through the emerging art/science of computational simulation of societal processes on a macro scale, but the technique does contain some inherent epistemological limitations, especially from an anthropological perspective. Arguably, it is metaphorically that the concepts of emergence and complex adaptive systems are most useful as instruments in the social scientists toolbox. Conceptualising the internet as an emergent phenomenon in the complex adaptive system of the present globalised world, allows for a holistic analysis of the myriad social, cultural, and economic formations that continue to evolve in relation to this world wide computer network. The internet has changed, and continues to alter, cultural constructions of reality, and modalities of social interaction and organisation; while in continuous mutation, itself embodying the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. Conceptualising the internet as an emergent phenomenon allows for a dynamic model of the relationship between social processes and the Internet; in seeing how the internet arose from the complex adaptive system of society and simultaneously alters the configurations of global society as an instance of emergence.

The Internet As An Emergent Phenomenon

Put simply, a phenomenon is emergent when it is: novel or unprecedented, ceaselessly mutating, exhibiting unpredictable behaviour, and fundamentally altering the configuration of the complex adaptive system from which it emerges (Holland 1998; Johnson 2001; Fuchs 2005, 2007). The concept of a complex adaptive system is fundamental to understanding emergence; a complex adaptive system is simply a system that dynamically changes the relationships between its components over time. Complex adaptive systems are the sum of the interactions of their constituent components; they are in a constant state of flux, on the “edge of chaos”, but almost paradoxically also exhibit forms of spontaneous organisation, and intelligent behaviour on a macro-scale due to the emergent phenomena. Both complex adaptive systems, and emergent phenomena, are a gestalt of the interaction of the agents in the system, or, as Holland puts it, 'the behaviour of the whole is much more complex then the behaviour of the parts' (Holland 1998: 2). Deacon argues that pivotal aspects of emergent phenomena is that they are unpredictable, mutate over time, influence other processes of the system, and perhaps most importantly exhibit amplification; an ascent in the scale of the phenomena over time (Deacon 2003).

From a purely mathematical perspective, emergence results from any simple rule governing interaction of agents in a complex adaptive system, producing novel and unpredictable patterns and configurations of organisation over time in the system under investigation (Holland 1998; Johnson 2001). The concept of emergence is derived from mathematical models, and as Fischer argues it is emblematic of a paradigm shift that has occurred in computing and other technosciences; a shift from rule-governed, cohesive approaches to ones emphasising the chaotic and ephemeral nature of reality today. Collins' argues, in anthropological and sociological discourse, that emergence is an ambiguous and ill defined term, which covers a variety of concepts (Collins 2007). Fuchs says that it is the patterns that arise from the complex interactions of agents in a complex adaptive system that defines a CAS, in this sense the Net can be seen as an emergent pattern or configuration (Fuchs 2007).

In the social sciences, there is a small but significant field concerned with the computer modeling of complex macro-scale emergent social phenomena, such as resource distribution and societal - ecological relations, where the agents constituting the complex adaptive system of society are individual humans (Lansing 2003; Epstein & Axel 1996). This approach argues that the interactions of humans in a society creates instance of emergence, leading to unpredictable patterns of cultural, social, technological and economic organisation. Escobar, one of the earliest anthropologists to focus on emergent technologies, argues that a complex adaptive systems framework, emphasising emergence, webs, connections, and unpredictability, is a fitting tool of analysis in conceptualising the fundamental ways technologies such as the Internet are dramatically impacting postindustrial society (Escobar 1994).

Obviously society, culture and technology themselves are not discrete entities, and a complex adaptive systems approach accounts for this also: they feed into each other in a dialectical process of ongoing dynamic mutation, blurring the boundaries between each and giving rise to disruptive and novel forms within each others makeup.

From a sociological perspective, as a social and technological network the Internet is a 'self-organising system', or a complex adaptive system, and an instance of emergence in global human society; In line with Lansing and others who work in simulating social phenomena, he argues that individuals are the basic unit of the complex adaptive system of society. Sawyer also argues that society can be seen as a complex adaptive system consisting of individual agents that make up the society; he sees this as accounting for the complex changes seen in social forms of organisation (Sawyer 2004).

The dialectic between technology and society is ever present: the Internet both shapes society and cultural processes and is simultaneously shaped by these (Escobar 1994). The Internet as a technological network cannot be removed from the social processes it simultaneously emerges from and continues to shape (Wilson & Peterson 2002). In fact, the Internet is now intrinsic to the functioning of our fragmented, global, postindustrial society: primarily due to the medium allowing normal social spatial and temporal limitations to be transcended in communication, the transfer of information, finance, trading, and more.

A Brief History of The Internet

Anthropologically, the Internet can be defined both as an ever expanding technological infrastructure of networked computers and fiber-optic cables spanning the globe, involving the transmission of large volumes of digital data, and socially and culturally as an ever mutating participatory medium that enables fast access to information, interpersonal networked communication warping social notions of space and time, and enabling participation in virtual communities, among other novel social and cultural formations. Originally deployed in the late 1960's by the United States Defense Department's Advanced Research Project Agency, the Net was designed as a rhizomic decentralised communications network that would still be operational in the event of a nuclear attack destroying a number of its key communication nodes. For the first twenty years of its existence, the Internet was a diverse group of interlinked, or sometimes discreet, computer communication networks worldwide, founded by universities and governments (Zakon 2006). In the 1980's, the Internet became a quasi public network, albeit with limited access; still used primarily by military personnel, scientists and computer enthusiasts (Abbate 1999). During the early 1990's, the Net became accessible and affordable to many American's and others worldwide: the Net was privatised, the WWW protocol introduced, and the first web browser, Mosaic was released; (Abbate 1999). This led to an explosion of growth, from the 1990's to today the number of people connecting to the Internet has been almost doubling every year (DiMaggio et al. 2001). Today, the Internet is an integral aspect of the lives of the vast majority of individuals in postindustrial contexts: using e-mail, participating in virtual communities, banking and shopping Online among other activites are a normal part of daily life (Bargh & McKenna 2004).The volume of raw digital data streaming across the global computer network has also doubled every year since this time, representing exponential growth in overall Internet traffic (Odlyzko 2003). In 1995 there was less then 20 000 web sites Online, by 2000 this had increased to over 10 million; as many as 2 million web pages are now added to the Net everyday (DiMaggio et al. 2001). Today, the Internet is a labyrinthine, mutating network: it is impossible to map the Internet in its totality, to exactly calculate the number of users worldwide, or the number of websites hosted on servers across the globe. Earlier media forms such as television and the telephone had an annual social penetration rate of roughly 10%, a stark contrast to the exponential growth of the Internet at almost 100% per year. The Net is truly emergent, embodying exponential growth both as a technological computer based network, and as a social network of human beings across the planet.

It is not just the physical infrastructure, and the number of people going Online that is growing and mutating; many have notes the ephemeral nature of online communities and the rapidity with which things change Online (Wilson & Peterson 2002) As of 2001, over three million people were processing data on their home computers as part of the SETI@home project, looking for signs of alien life (Coffman & Odlyzko 2001). The pace of change is so rapid on the Net that many have called this phenomenon 'Internet time' (Coffman & Odlyzko 2001; ). Due to this rapid rate of mutation, no one can predict the future social and cultural configurations the Net may bring into being. This has been evidenced by the emergence of previously unforseen phenomena such as cryptocurrency.

The Net is also emergent in that it combines the form and function of all previous media forms, such as text, video, photos and sound, adding another layer of significance onto this, which can themselves be seen as constituent topologies. It can also be a telephone, a television, and a library, as a medium where individuals can express their opinions on a range of topics, especially now with blogging, forums and social media Because the net can be all these things at once it is 'unprecedently malleable' as a media form. It can be seen how the Internet is also emergent in this way, as it involves all other past media forms, and methods of communication into one media form. The Net also is collapsing the socially agreed distinction between public and private, and personal and mass communications.

Altering Social Constructions of Time and Space

Fundamental to the social ramifications of the Internet is the collapsing of the temporal and spatial dimensions of social interaction, and information retrieval. The 20th century has led to faster communication, and a greater volume of commmunication, as different media such as radio, TV and the Internet have risen to prominence. Socially constructed space is vital for social processes, and the Net has warped traditional notions of space. Social space can stretch across vast geographical distances and social networks now extend across the globe.

As well as the collapsing of social space, the Internet has also had an effect on societal norms of temporality. Communication is also much faster then it was in the past. Communication such as in virtual worlds and in chat rooms requires both agents to be there simultaneously, the Internet has not conquered this yet, but it does allow people to communicate across the globe. E-mail allows the agents to communicate at different times, and it spans the globe. Earlier media have all effected social constructions of space and time, and due to email, social networking, Skype, and other forms of online communication, social agents can maintain connectedness over vast geographical distances. Earlier media have had effects on society, but as the Net is exponentially growing, and endlessly mutating, it will (and already has), have a more dramatic effect then previous media forms.

Faster Access to Information

Many have argued that the Net enables faster access to information then earlier media forms, indeed Berners-Lee originally envisaged the World Wide Web as a medium that would allow the global distribution of information, easy access to this information, and the endless refinement of knowledge (Berners-Lee & Fischetti 1999). The available ethnographic evidence details how an increasing number of individuals are using the Internet as their main source of information, instead of traditional media sources such as television and newspapers (Bargh & McKenna 2004). In the past people had to go to a library to get information, but now much of humanity's knowledge is available at anyones fingertips through the Internet at lightning speed.

Evolution of Virtual communities

The creator of the World Wide Web protocol, Berners-Lee, did not envisage the online communities that would spring up, showing another emergent aspect of the Net (Berners-Lee & Fischetti 1999). Virtual communities emerged 20 years ago, and since then have been rapidly mutating; they are based around interests and activities as opposed to traditional social networks. Virtual communities can be seen as subsystems of the emergent Internet, as emergent phenomena deriving from the overarching emergent phenomena of the Net, and feeding back into the Net and fundamentally altering the Internet itself (Fuchs 2007). Virtual communities can only exist because of the time-space warping the medium of the Internet allows, enabling global communities that exist everywhere and no-where, in the ephemeral configurations of cyberspace. Interestingly, while the Internet has its origins in the military-industrial complex, virtual communities emerged from the desires and collaboration of computer enthusiasts and hobbyists in the late 1970's (Rheingold 2000). The relative anonymity of Online communication, and the ability to directly network with individuals who have similar interests is a novel aspect of the net (Bargh & McKenna 2004). The raw number of virtual communities is rapid increasing and diversifying, and it is becoming steadily easier for even an inexperienced Net user to start a community.


Wilson and Peterson argue that anthropology should move away from looking at the sensational aspects of the Internet as an emergent phenomenon, and focus on how individuals use the Internet in specific contexts (Wilson & Peterson 2002). This may be so, but looking at how the Internet is dynamically transforming social and cultural processes, and access to information, on both the macro and micro levels, is an integral aspect of the phenomenon that can contextualise the observations Wilson and Peterson argue for. The Internet is an emergent phenomena that has experienced exponential growth and is irreversibly modifying human social, cultural, economic and technological formations. As an emergent phenomena the Internet will continue to have as yet unforseen and disruptive effects on humanity at large, as we have seen in recent years with social networking, cryptocurrency, 3D printing, hacktivism, downloading, access to information, the open source and anti-copyright movements, technonomadism, and much, much more.


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