In one of the very first episodes of RadioLab, Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, and their team tackle the topic of Emergence. Emergence is the way in which small and simple actions or interactions create a very complex system or structure. In discussing emergence as a theory of how things change, RadioLab touches on a number of very distinct and varied phenomena, including ant behaviour, Google's search engine, our brains' neurons, pointillism, and neighbourhoods.
Let's take the example of neighbourhoods. Steven Johnson, guest on the show and author of the book Emergence, proposes that neighbourhoods are organically created by a series of small accidents, what he calls 'swerve'. For example, imagine you are walking to the grocery store to grab a few ingredients for dinner and you pass by a restaurant that just opened. You like to keep a handle on your neighbourhood so you step inside to check out the new space. You're immediately enveloped in warm and delicious smells and find yourself asking for the menu. You've just swerved into this eatery and laid down a piece of the pattern. Hundreds of actions just like yours can make this new little restaurant the most popular place on the street. So who decided that that restaurant would become such a hot spot? As Johnson says, "Everybody and nobody at the same time."
The systems we create by our collective actions are incredibly complex. Sometimes these systems thrive and create spaces where together we are happier, safer, and more connected. Other times our actions (or inactions) create systems of injustice, apathy, and isolation. These systems are created by us together, not by any one of us on our own.
But here's the rub: if we are each one part of "everybody and nobody," then how do our individual decisions matter to the larger whole? What emerges from our shopping, our commuting, our web browsing?
Our little everyday decisions carry weight in complex systems. Each one of us holds responsibility for our actions because we can change the balance of the whole. By making informed choices, patronizing specific businesses, working to build or strengthen our institutions, or adding our voices to crucial conversations, we are laying down pieces of a larger pattern. Our decisions are not neutral, but rather help to build, sustain, or change structures as a whole, for good or for ill.
So about a month ago, Miley Cyrus released her music video "Wrecking Ball," which shows her sitting on a wrecking ball, often naked. If she's not on the ball, she's lying on broken cement or licking a sledgehammer. In her video Miley continues to reduce her full worth down to a sex object. The video currently has over 274,000,000 views.
From that popularity has emerged everything Miley needs to know about getting the attention she craves. More to the point, every time we watch it, we lay down the pattern that says this is what we want from her.
Re-watching the video is a small choice—one among the million each of us make, and one more click on the video millions have watched—but it's not so small as to not be seen. It's a piece of a pattern. We are everybody and nobody. So are we working for flourishing or against it?