Alphabets of Emergence

My goal for Subconscious is to create a system capable of provoking emergence. Minecraft, the web, wikis, spreadsheets, and legos are all examples of systems that can provoke emergent behavior.

So what does it take to provoke emergence? Where does emergence come from?

A generating system… is a kit of parts, with rules about the way these parts may be combined. Almost every ‘system as a whole’ is generated by a ‘generating system’. If we wish to make things which function as ‘wholes’ we shall have to invent generating systems to create them.
- Christopher Alexander, 1968, “Systems Generating Systems

Emergence is generated by generating systems, or, to use plain language, emergence springs from alphabets.

An alphabet is a kit of parts, together with rules about the way these parts may be combined. Alphabets are compositional, that is, they let you combine things together to create new things.

When you design a system in terms of an alphabet, the same pieces that can be used to build, say, an airplane…

…can also be taken apart and repurposed to build a drag racer, or a glider, or a speed boat, or…

Alphabets are how meaning is made. The meaning is the system surprising itself.

A product can serve only those use-cases its PM can imagine, but an alphabet can be used to create things beyond what any one person could have anticipated or imagined.


The web began as a tool for thought—a small, simple tool for sharing scientific papers between computers. Yet it evolved into a universal app platform, and has been exapted for everything from e-commerce, to social media, to streaming video. How was this evolution possible? The web was designed to be an alphabet.

One of the ongoing quests of physics is to find simple rules that describe the behavior of very small, simple objects. Once found, these rules can often be scaled up to describe the behavior of monumental systems… For the Web, those elements were, in decreasing order of importance, Universal Resource Identifiers (URIs) Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).
- Tim Berners-Lee, 2000, “Weaving the Web

These pieces make up an alphabet, and HTML makes up an alphabet of its own. The pieces of these alphabets have been recombined to create new things TBL could not have anticipated or imagined. For example:

  • URLs + HTTP + HTML = web

  • URLs + HTTP + RSS = Podcasts

  • URLs + HTTP + JSON = REST APIs

  • URLs + P2P + HTML = Web3


DNA has only 4 letters, but managed to generate you. From the standpoint of emergence, it is not so much the number of letters in the alphabet that matters. What matters is the mechanism of composition, the rules for how those pieces may be combined to create new pieces.

Aim for small alphabets with a universal mechanism of composition.

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.
– John Gall (Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail)

Constrain the alphabet, but don't constrain what may be written with it.


Stray books and links:


I'm building a new tool for thought. I have a general sense of the direction I’m traveling, but I will be as surprised as you are at what I discover along the way. I'm posting these little emails as trail markers, every week or so. I share updates, ideas, design patterns, and snippets of books and papers.