Emergent Properties of the Long Tail

Chris Anderson warms the cockles of our heart as he discusses the psychological acceptability of “The Probabilistic Age:”

When professionals–editors, academics, journalists–are running the show, we at least know that it’s someone’s job to look out for such things as accuracy. But now we’re depending more and more on systems where nobody’s in charge; the intelligence is simply emergent. These probabilistic systems aren’t perfect, but they are statistically optimized to excel over time and large numbers. They’re designed to scale, and to improve with size. And a little slop at the microscale is the price of such efficiency at the macroscale.

He’s right. Emergent systems are hard to accept. Even when they’re derived from human success, it is often a series of mistakes and lucky accidents that enable them. Nick Szabo bemoans this point in his discussion of “The Origins of Value:”

Nor are contributions to corporate law of the Catholic Church, municipalities, and guilds in the Middle Ages (not to mention Western law schools, which first appeared then), long before Dutch East India Company, mentioned. Indeed, most of the important legal issues that must be solved to make modern capital markets possible are just not addressed, despite the vast documentary record of legal codes and decisions from Babylon, Rome, medieval Europe, and other places where such legal breakthroughs were made.

It’s hard to see the set of precursors and enablers that make these systems work. (Neal Stephenson makes this point as well, with the last of the challenges that Little Nell goes through in The Diamond Age.) So Chris Anderson’s work in examining why that’s hard is quite important stuff.