Filmed on Friday May 11, 02007

Steven Johnson

The Long Zoom

A Web adept, Steven Berlin Johnson co-founded an early webzine, Feed, and recently started outside.in--- "an attempt to collectively build the geographic Web, neighborhood by neighborhood." He is author of an exceptional book on connectivity and self-organization, Emergence, and an exceptional book on cities, The Ghost Map.

Nobody discovers or imparts an insight with the dexterity of Steven Johnson, author of Emergence, Everything Bad Is Good For You, and The Ghost Map. In this talk he examines how humanity is transformed by its new scaling capability--- our ability now to examine and relate events at the nanometer and nanosecond scale and then zoom right out to a cosmic scale and time frame. With tools like Google Earth and Will Wright's "Spore" game, we all are learning to zoom with comfort. How does that change us?

Consilience defeats miasma

Steven Johnson began his long zoom survey with the “prior art” of Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus locating himself in himself, his neighborhood, Dublin, on out to the universe. The value of a long zoom is in identifying and employing every scale between the very large and very small, noticing how they change each other when held in the mind at the same time.

Johnson’s core story (and current book) concerned London in 1854, when it was the largest city in the world and in history with 2.5 million people. London famously stank. Cesspools filled basements, slaughterhouses were anywhere, garbage piled up.

Medicine at the time held that disease was caused by “miasma,” foul air, noxious vapors. “All smell is disease,” declared a Doctor Chadwick. The authorities decided that the way to cure the frequent cholera epidemics in London was to get rid of the bad odor— pump the sewage into the Thames, which people drank. The cholera got worse.

Johnson’s goal with his book, The Ghost Map, was to figure out why the wrong theory of disease lingered so long, and what it took to correct it. The answer, he proposes, is in the perspective of the long zoom.

The celebrated story goes that John Snow discovered the polluted-water cause of cholera by drawing a “ghost map” of the cholera deaths concentrated around the Broad Street pump in Soho. What really happened is more interesting. Snow had been publishing his theory of water pollution causing cholera for five years. In August of 1854, a horrifying 10% of his neighborhood in Soho perished from the disease. Then he drew up the map, drawing on public statistics provided by the city, and on the street savvy of a popular vicar named Rev. Henry Whitehead.

The map confirmed his theory and persuaded the medical establishment and city authorities. In just 12 years, cholera was completely eradicated from London.

In Johnson’s view, one long zoom had displaced another. The miasma theory of cholera embraced a nested set of scales ranging, from large to small: cultural traditions - urban development - technology - contemporary politics - “great men” - human sensory system. Bad smell, bad people, bad disease.

With John Snow’s map, a different long zoom took over: cities - data systems - neighborhood - humans - organs - microbes. The combination of city density and open-source data about the epidemic made the ghost map possible and persuasive. Doctor Snow noticed that the bodily symptoms of cholera looked like they were caused by something swallowed rather than something inhaled. The data had to be extremely strong to overcome the bias of human sensory apparatus— our alarm system of smell can detect minute amounts of contagion, but we cannot see them. It took a neighborhood map to defeat what the nose thought it knew.

Johnson proposed that another word for the long zoom perspective is “consilience”— a fine old word, revived by Edward O. Wilson, that links multiple disciplines and multiple levels into a whole body of knowledge with extra benefits the separate disciplines lack. Science and culture can blend rigorously. What is discovered in consilience is not just scales of distance or time but nested systems.

Johnson moved on to contemporary popular culture, drawing on his research for his brain book (Emergence) and his book on video games and TV (Everything Bad Is Good For You). Back in the three-network days of “Gilligan’s Island,” the guiding principle was “least objectionable programming.” Now with DVDs and TiVo, the guideline is “most repeatable programming”— material that will reward you if you study it again and again. Thus a current hit TV series about a very different island, “Lost,” has a whole horde of characters and purveys many-leveled complexities and mysteries embracing geography - economics - technology - sociology - biology - ontology. Viewers are invited to wonder, among a great many other things, whether the whole damn thing is a dream, and, if so, whose?

Our brain is wired with “seeking circuitry” and relishes exercising “the regime of competence.” TV shows like “Lost” and video games like “World of Warcraft” are addictive because they reward exploration. Instead of employing narrative arcs, they keep you in a state of being always challenged but not quite overwhelmed as you ascend from skill level to skill level.

We are learning to master complexity, to revel in long zooms like Google Earth or the forthcoming Will Wright game, “Spore.” A few years ago, Johnson was introducing his 7-year-old nephew to Wright’s early video game, “Sim City”— “Ooh, look at the big buildings!” Shortly, Johnson’s factory district was failing. His nephew piped up. “Lower your industrial tax rate,” said the child.

Johnson ended the talk with another line from James Joyce: “It was very big to think about everything and everywhere.”

“It’s never been easier,” said Johnson.

PS… Also announced at this talk is the North American Premiere of Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings.

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