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How Steven Johnson Is Actually Making Us Smarter

This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. One dark week a hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of great terror and human suffering, their lives collided on London's Broad Street, on the western edge of Soho.
from The Ghost Map

In 1854, as a cholera epidemic ravaged London, prevailing wisdom blamed "miasma"; in other words, "bad air" was spreading the disease from victim to victim. Cholera claimed the lives of 30,000 Londoners in that one year alone.

Steven JohnsonOne prominent physician disagreed. Dr. John Snow suspected the real culprit was London's filthy water. In the Reverend Henry Whitehead, he found a reluctant ally, but it was finally Snow's innovation in cartography that identified beyond a reasonable doubt the epidemic's true source.

A frequent contributor to Wired, Discover, and the New York Times Magazine, Steven Johnson has argued (persuasively) for the educational value of computer games and television (Everything Bad Is Good for You); led a popular guided tour of the brain (Mind Wide Open); and served up what the Village Voice dubbed "one of the most cogent and accessible samples of Net theory around" (Interface Culture).

In Emergence, Johnson explored "the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software." The Ghost Map thrives on such interdisciplinary zeal. Local politics, medicine, urban planning, religious faith... As Publishers Weekly raved, "Johnson weaves in overlapping ideas about the growth of civilization, the organization of cities, and evolution to thrilling effect."

Dave: You start The Ghost Map in a really interesting place, though maybe not such an obvious one, describing London's scavengers and how they make a living. Why start there?

Steven Johnson: In that first chapter, I wanted to establish London as one of the book's main characters. The system of London. To think of it almost as a superorganism that has its own metabolism and its own life force, on some level. Also, to convey how out of control it was, lacking in infrastructure, which obviously is central to the cholera outbreak, itself.

The scavengers played on a number of different themes. They were part of an emergent waste recycling system — it had evolved without anyone planning it from above — and of course they had that niche, in part, because the city had no sewage or waste removal system. It should give a sense of just how disturbing the scene was. By the end of the book, when I start talking about today's megacities, it's an important link to that as well.

Dave: When Erik Larson was here talking about Devil in the White City, he explained that Frederick Law Olmsted wasn't meant to be a major character. In the research and the writing, Olmstead started to take over. Something similar happened to you in The Ghost Map with the Reverend Henry Whitehead, I've heard.

Johnson: It's a wonderful thing about writing, that such things happen.

This is my first book with a sustained historical story to it. When I first imagined the book, I imagined a story with three protagonists: the city, the bacterium, and then John Snow in the middle. I knew a little about Whitehead at the time. In other accounts, he had been ignored — quite frequently, he's left out, altogether — or he'd show up briefly to help Snow with some of the door-to-door investigating.

I'd written just a little bit about him when I showed my wife the first two chapters. She said, "This Whitehead guy is really interesting. I'd like to hear more about him."

What else could I say about Whitehead? The more I researched, the more I realized that he was absolutely central to the story and to the actual cracking of the case, to the extent that it's a detective story. So on the one hand there was the sense that up until now the scholarship had done him a disservice and underestimated his role; but in addition to that, because he was this classic urban character, a social networker who knew everyone in the neighborhood and whose social intelligence was crucial to the problem-solving, he added a whole element to the theme of the book by putting this story in the context of urbanism.

It was a triple whammy: I suddenly had an interesting character and the story of his friendship with Snow, I could actually correct the historical record, and it added to the overarching ideas I was trying to get at. So it was a fortuitous thing.

Dave: You mentioned having a narrative to move the reader along. How did that change your approach to the material as you were putting the book together?

Johnson: For one thing, it was easier to write. I felt myself propelled along by the narrative. Just to have these things at your disposal, where you can say, "Little did they know, that very same day..."

But as a writer? I felt a little bit stupid, actually. This is my fifth book. About halfway through, I suddenly thought, I think people really like stories. What a surprise. I'd discovered this fascinating insight: people like narrative. I had deliberately tried to write an idea book wrapped around a story, but I didn't realize how much fun it was going to be until I sat down to do it. And now I don't want to go back.

I'm under contract for a book that doesn't necessarily have a sustained story running through it, and I've been trying to figure out ways to twist the structure into something more like this. Certainly the one after that will be more like Ghost Map.

Dave: The period in which Ghost Map takes place has been well documented, from Dickens to any number of contemporary writers. You make a point of stressing that at that time, in the 1850s, people weren't convinced a city could survive on London's scale.

Johnson: That's one of the big messages. It's also crucial in thinking about today's big cities.

One reason we look back at that period is that it represents the beginning, in some important ways, of modern life. It's the start of the metropolitan, industrial experience that fifty percent of the planet now lives through in one form or another. London lived through it first.

One of the things I tried to capture, as you say, was this very open ended question of whether the whole project was going to work. Rome had grown to over a million people, and then it collapsed; now it was a tenth of its size. A lot of people thought that this was happening again: inevitably, the city was going to self-destruct — some cataclysmic event was going to turn the tide the other way. And there were plenty of good, sound reasons to think that, given how awful it was to live there.

That's why I think this story is so important: it really is one of the key moments in the battle to make cities of that size, and even much larger cities, fundamentally sustainable propositions.

Dave: In the epilogue, you address various risks that cities face today and the progress that's being made to eliminate them.

Johnson: It's a funny book in that it's very dark for the first half, and then it becomes much more optimistic.

I was doing a BBC radio show a couple weeks ago. One of the other panelists said, "There's a sort of American optimism to the book." It was definitely meant as a criticism. And I thought, C'mon! God forbid we should have some optimism!

It's so extraordinary to go back and see how many problems they had. You think about where they were in 1854: They were totally wrong about cholera; one or two people understood it, maybe in the entire world but certainly in England. Twelve years later, you fast forward, and they've started to build the sewers; 1866 is the last time cholera hits London.

Here's a huge, everyday threat to people's lives that was eliminated, maybe forever, from London, in the space of twelve years. They went from almost no knowledge — draining cesspools into the river — to conquering this thing.

The story of cities over the last hundred fifty years is that story, again and again, on so many different fronts. We should remind ourselves, not as a reason for complacency, but as cause for renewed commitment to the kind of intelligence, the kind of infrastructure, and the kind of thinking Snow and Whitehead, and then Bazalgette when he was building the sewers, showed in that Victorian period.

Dave: I love the epigraph in Emergence: "Like a standing wave in front of a rock in a fast-moving stream, a city is a pattern in time."

Johnson: Thanks. I didn't write that, of course.

Dave: Right. John Holland.

Johnson: I think it's in the acknowledgements somewhere: When I was writing that book, I went through a long period when I wasn't sure if I wanted to write a book about how the brain works or a book about how cities work. I had an epiphany when I saw the map of Hamburg that's reproduced there. Maybe it's one book. It was in part because Holland had that line about cities.

The complexity people had alluded to cities as complex organisms and examples of bottom-up organization, but there had been little actual investigation into how that worked through the lens of complexity science. Holland had alluded to it in a couple different places. I thought there was a great book to be written about it.

When I finally went and read Jane Jacobs, who of course was writing The Death and Life of Great American Cities before complexity theory had become a real thing, it was clear from the first chapter that she was talking about exactly that. So much of what she wrote about was compatible with the modern idea of emergence.

It was one of those ideas, a little like when I write about how miasma theory came around and Snow was immune to it. Some ideas are overdetermined by forces coming together at a particular moment in time. I felt a little like that when I was writing Emergence. All these different contributaries were converging and forming a large river that was pushing me along in that idea.

Dave: They're opening a new wing in the Literature Hall of Fame. It's dedicated to urban fiction. Hypothetically. Novels of the city. What gets in on the first ballot?

Johnson: You know, the sad story of my life is that I pretty much stopped reading novels after grad school, which was all nineteenth century British and French novels. So don't ask me about twentieth century novels.

Dave: Someone else will nominate those.

Johnson: Then I think Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are my favorites. Our Mutual Friend is out of control in some ways; it's a little messy. Bleak House is incredibly well structured. Little Dorrit, too, of Dickens's big city novels of the 50s. A Sentimental Education is an incredible urban novel, too.

I like those books because they try to make the city a character, and they try to represent a set of social connections that is hard to imagine in your head. The city is so large and there are so many different people, so many class strata. The novel is a fantastic form, if it's done well, for trying to build a cognitive map of that kind of system.

Flaubert and Dickens take two very different approaches. Dickens invokes a magical side: "And then it turned out that this person was that person's long-lost cousin, who was the heir to..." You can see how the strain of trying to connect all these lives breaks down in the realism.

Flaubert's approach... You get a feeling when you read A Sentimental Education that it's kind of random. The plot is built out of chance encounters on the street that lead you in a not particularly clear direction. In Dickens those chance encounters reveal a secret heritage or a long-lost connection; Sentimental Education is more like a billiard table where you throw the balls out and they go off in different directions. They're both powerful ways of seeing the city in narrative form, just different strategies.

Dave: I wondered, reading Ghost Map and Emergence: Do kids have ant farms anymore? You're a parent. I'm not a parent.

Johnson: No, they play SimCity. I saw an ant farm in a toy store about a year ago, and I thought about it as a gift for my boys, but they'd probably try to set it on fire or something.

Dave: Home theater in the seventies: ant farms and aquariums. Moving pictures.

Johnson: That's right. I need to track one down.

Dave: It must have been a career milestone the first time you were paid to play video games, but aside from your research for Everything Bad Is Good for You, when do you find time?

Johnson: I actually don't play them all that much. I like sampling them. I like to see what's going on, see what's new, but I never have time to finish a big game. I'll play a couple levels until I feel like, Okay, I know how that's going to turn out.

I have three kids now. In fact, the kids are helping me play a little more. The oldest one is five. We just got a Nintendo Wii, so we've been playing that, which is incredibly fun.

SimCity is the one I play the most. I think I described it in another interview as "my great love," which my wife didn't like so much. But that's the one. When a new version comes out, I'll play about sixty hours of it because I just love the concept and the game playing. But I don't have much time to play anymore.

Dave: Near the beginning of Everything Bad Is Good for You, you mention drawing upon disciplines that don't usually interact. That interdisciplinary approach seems to be the connection between your books, maybe even the way you process information.

Johnson: I think it is the overarching theme. Did you see the piece I wrote for the New York Times Magazine, "The Long Zoom," about Spore? It's a new Will Wright game.

Dave: I didn't, no.

Johnson: It's the one place where there's actually a connection between Everything Bad and Ghost Map. It was basically making the Consilience argument: that one of the most powerful ways of thinking about the world is being able to move across scales of experience. Basically, moving across disciplines. For instance, from the scale of the bacterium to the scale of the human body, to the brain, to society or the city, and to not be focused on any one of those levels but to jump in a consilient way between them and make connections and talk about how behavior on one level predicts or creates behavior on another.

That's the natural mode that my brain seems to work in. When I see a problem, I think, How does this connect up and down? That pushes you into other disciplines.

I think the other related point here is to see the sciences and the humanities talking to each other in a productive way. I came out of college in the late '80s amid the science wars. Literary theorists were deconstructing the scientists, and scientists were making fun of the literary theorists. There was no realm where you'd come into a classroom and say, "This complexity theory might be useful in thinking about the kind of urban system Dickens is describing." If you talked about science, it was entirely to show how it was Eurocentric or something.

I always felt like that was a total waste of time. There were obviously insights that both domains could productively share. A lot of what I've been trying to do since then is figure out what those connections could be, and figure out a way to work them into the books.

Dave: In Everything Bad, you suggest that it's sometimes more useful to evaluate an activity by the way it challenges your brain and what implications that might have for the future, as opposed to strictly what the activity makes you learn.

Maybe we should rate movies by the mental effort they demand, you propose, instead of the level of violence and sex they contain.

Johnson: Exercise versus content acquisition. It's odd because people completely accept that idea in a number of different places. When people take calculus, they accept the idea that they're not expected to actually use it, ninety or ninety-five percent of them. We understand that it's a good mental exercise and it challenges you to work with these concepts in your head. And that's good for the brain. Same with playing chess — there's nothing useful here except good mental exercise.

The idea that we accept it in one zone but don't in another seems bizarre to me. Then you get into the question of whatever kinds of skills people are getting from their diversions, from their pop culture — we're probably not testing for them. Say, complex system thinking and analysis, the kind of thinking you have to do in SimCity, and in pretty much any video game that isn't just a first-person shooter or Pong — that's a very rich, nuanced form of thinking, but it's not something you test on a SAT. The No Child Left Behind stuff is not testing for that kind of thinking. And that's a waste.

We don't really know what's happening in the brains of our kids because we're looking at a narrow little sliver. Given computers and calculators, system thinking may be every bit as important as algebra, and yet we know much more about algebra.

Dave: In Mind Wide Open, Joseph LeDoux explains that in the early '80s his grant request had been turned down "because emotions can't be studied scientifically." His experience reminded me of the miasma bias.

Johnson: There are two things there. One, whole ways of intellectually dealing with the world exist beyond the narrow forms of cognition we're accustomed to think of as being standard. Emotional intelligence has opened up dramatically in the last ten years as something we need to measure and be aware of.

But that broader connection to miasma, of How do orthodoxies stay in place? — this is an old, old obsession of mine. When I was in college, I remember reading Thomas Kuhn and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, talking about paradigm shifts. I always wanted to know: What happens right at the moment when it shifts? I understand how paradigms and research establish the overall conditions of investigation and exploration — they set the boundaries — but they change. What is going on at that transition point? Are there rules, or is it chaotic?

I started reading chaos and complexity theory, and I realized that's what they were focused on, as well. What happens when water moves to ice, in that moment? We understand water, and we understand ice. We just don't understand why there is a sudden transformation and what the logic is at that point.

That's what I'm interested in, in cultural systems. That's a theme of a bunch of my books. Some of my favorite parts of Ghost Map are the analysis of why miasma theory was in place: biology, governing ideologies at a given time, and particular accidents in history, all those things coming together. Doing that kind of analysis about why people were wrong for so long, that's fun.

Dave: You mention "the sociology of error" in The Ghost Map. Is that actually a field of study?

Johnson: A lot of people have picked up on that phrase. I feel like half the reviews have said, "That's a great idea." One review somewhere said it should be a department and I should be its first tenured faculty. We'll just sit around and look at really bad ideas and why they stuck around, I guess.

It's something I got from my old mentor at Columbia, Franco Moretti, a wonderful literary scholar, one of the great ones, I think, alive now. He's written a lot about detective fiction. He went back and looked at failed genres, genres that never took off. The Bildungsroman became a popular and lasting form, but a whole underbelly of literary forms have disappeared. Why did those forms fail? You can learn just as much from the failures as you can from the successes.

Dave: Have you seen the Mindball game at the Wired store in SoHo?

Johnson: I haven't. It's a neuro-feedback thing?

Dave: Two players sit at opposite ends of a table. They wear headbands that are wired into a computer. Whoever can relax the most, relax their brain's electrical activity, forces a ball across the table toward the other player. The first player to move the ball across their opponent's end-line wins.

Johnson: That's awesome.

Dave: It was pretty entertaining to watch. The brain waves are displayed in real-time on a big computer screen behind the players. I was there a few weeks ago. A whole crowd had gathered around.

Johnson: Exactly the kind of environment that's not good for relaxing.

Dave: One woman started freaking out while she was playing. "The ball's going the wrong way!" I wanted to call time out.

You mentioned that you're working on another book. What's it about?

Johnson: I've sold it, but I haven't had much time to think about it. In some form, it's a book about creativity that will involve the long zoom idea: thinking about creativity that's not necessarily something that happens between you and your notepad, but everything from the neurons in your brain all the way up to the city you're thinking in the middle of.

I want to take a little more time on this one. The Ghost Map is my third book in three years, and I feel like people are going to get sick of me, that I'm going to get sick of myself.

Dave: I've explored a bit on outside.in. How do you see the site evolving?

Johnson: It's so up for grabs. The great thing about it right now is precisely that. We're at an intersection where clearly there's going to be a whole new set of conventions for how you think about geography using the web, and how you navigate real world space using online tools. A lot of people are thinking about this problem. We're right in the middle of it, in a pretty good place to contribute.

I would like outside.in to be the place you go, ultimately, whenever you have that question of, "What's happening around me at this point in space?"

It could be used down the line to find an Italian restaurant: "What are locals saying about this place?" But I imagine it to be much more than that. You go and you say, "What are the conversations here about public schools?" Or, "Everybody's buzzing about that mugging that happened two weeks ago. What's the latest word on that?"

You can see all those conversations in one single place. Some of them are happening on blogs, some in traditional media, and some in discussion forums like Chowhound. We want to be the place where you get pointed to all those different forms of information by positioning yourself in real world geography.

The whole idea of searching the map is something people are getting vaguely comfortable with in Google, looking for a business. They'll define a region on the map and say, "Okay, find me all the Starbucks." But I think that's going to become much more like, "Find me all the people who are really into the Foo Fighters." Or, "Find me all the poetry readings tomorrow within this little area."

We'd like to be the place that people do that. And that's a big part of the reason I'm going to take more time to write this next book, because for the next year I'm going to be more than half running outside.in.

Steven Johnson spoke from New York on December 21, 2006.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's...
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  2. Interface Culture: How New... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  3. Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  4. Emergence: The Connected Lives of... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  5. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How... Used Trade Paper $4.50
  6. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's...
    Used Hardcover $14.00
  7. The Great Stink of London: Sir... Used Trade Paper $10.50
  8. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's...
    Used Hardcover $14.00
  9. The Devil in the White City: Murder,...
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  10. Emergence: The Connected Lives of... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  11. Interface Culture: How New... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  12. Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  13. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How... Used Trade Paper $4.50

  14. Our Mutual Friend (Penguin Classics) Used Trade Paper $8.50
  15. The Structure of Scientific... Used Trade Paper $7.50


Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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