Long Zoom: Interview with Steven Johnson

Quote: Imagine a kind of conceptual tracking shot of life two or three years from now, a movement from scale to scale — like the wonderful Charles and Ray Eames film, Powers of Ten, which starts with a view of the Milky Way and steadily zooms all the way to a person lying in a park in Chicago, and then all [the] way to the subatomic particles contained within that person’s hand. Only in our long zoom do we find, at each scale, the same behavior repeating itself again and again.

— Steven Johnson, Emergence

This idea of the “long zoom,” a perspective that shifts back and forth from the macro- to the microcosm, organizes each of Steven Johnson’s five books of cultural criticism and science journalism. As he explains below, Johnson deploys concepts borrowed from contemporary science and from literary theory, using these in particular to understand the way information — biological, cultural, or other — self-organizes as it moves along networks. It’s not that he has one idea and applies it indiscriminately; rather, the long zoom is a kind of method: He focuses attentively on what happens at the moments when one shifts between scales — those moments, that is, when an explanatory vocabulary that makes sense from one point of view appears to break down. Johnson consistently shows how scientific and cultural progress happens when consilient thinkers are able to translate observations and data at one level of experience into another, making visible what had been hidden.

After the media storm around Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005), Johnson’s name is probably familiar to most readers of PopMatters. He’s also the author of three prior books: Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (1997); Emergence: The Connected lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (2001); Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life (2004). He’s also co-founded such influential websites as Plastic and the late, lamented Feed. At the end of 2006, he published a fifth book, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, and co-launched a new neighborhood-centric web service, outside/in.

The Ghost Map tells the story of the Broad Street (London) cholera epidemic of 1854. Johnson focuses on John Snow, a Victorian physician already known for his work on standardizing doses of anesthesia — in 1853, he had administered chloroform to Queen Victoria during labor — and who emerges here as a strong advocate of the water-borne theory of cholera. This was a contrarian point of view at mid-century, when the miasmatic theory was still the consensus view. Johnson’s story, then, pits Snow against the bacteria and against the city’s nascent public health institutions; he is most interested in Snow’s empirical approach, wherein the physician combined close observation of water samples with statistical analyses and reportorial interviews. As Johnson shows, by the end of this epidemic, cholera — a longstanding scourge of metropolises, essentially faded as an epidemic threat in the developed nations. In short, cities became far more livable as they sorted out how to handle, not just waste, but also information from scientific research and the millions of inhabitants comprising a major city.

Steven Johnson sat down at the Underground Deli in New Britain, CT, to talk about The Ghost Map and the Long Zoom. In the interview, Johnson explains how the Long Zoom holds together his recent work, and how this perspective emerged from his graduate-school training in literary theory and the Victorian period. Of particular interest, perhaps, is his deliberate attempt to position himself at the nexus of competing cultural discourses: On the one hand, he is far more open to the insights of theoreticians like Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari than many (most?) scientists; on the other hand, he also has little use for the reflexive ideological suspicion of science that can frequently be found in humanistic writing. We also discuss, albeit slightly indirectly, a frequent criticism of Johnson’s work: That he is, as he acknowledges in the afterword to Everything Bad Is Good for You, a species of “technological determinist,” and, as such, is somewhat likelier to downplay the cultural difficulties involved in exporting scientific and technical knowledge from postindustrial metropolises to the giant, sprawling shantytowns of some developing nations.

So: interfaces, cool adaptive evolutionary skills, brain imaging, video games … and now cholera. Did you self-consciously choose a “muckier” topic for The Ghost Map?

The origins of the book are very funny. You know, they’ve all had different, specific stories about how I came about to write them, but they also all have totally different kinds of stories. For example, Emergence took forever to take shape: It was going to be a book about cities, it was going to be a book about brains, and then it was going to be a book somehow about cities and brains, and then it was — now wait! What is the underlying principle that unites these two things?


And then it was about ants, and it just took forever to form. And this one, I had gone out to dinner with my wife, while I was in the middle of writing Everything Bad Is Good for You and I was thinking about what to do next. And so I was thinking, it would be nice to do a book with a story: I’ve never written anything with a sustained story all the way through, and so it would be nice to find some kind of a historical story that could provide this architecture that I could then wrap an idea book around. So I was thinking, there must be some story that out there, that I know, that’s somewhat out there, and that I could then work into my own web of ideas. And so then the next day, we went out to see Seabiscuit in the movie theater, and we’re sitting in the middle of the theater and all of a sudden the Broad Street outbreak comes into my head. I’d heard about it, I think, first from Tufte, and then run across it in a couple of different ways, and within like two minutes I had almost all the major idea components that were in the original proposal: I would tell it with three protagonists — bacteria, Snow, and the city, and I had the map connecting it with interfaces, and I had this disease thriller kind of idea, that you could structure it that way. And so I literally got up out of the theater and went out on the street and called my agent on the phone. I was said, “I have the next idea for the book!” And then I came back in the theater and my wife asked [stage whisper] “where did you go?” and I said [stage whisper], “I have the new idea for the book!”

So, Seabiscuit … not just inspirational to the masses, but also the source of book ideas!

That’s right: That’s all you’ve got to do is go see Seabiscuit. But, really, it was not so much the messiness of it, but it was the historical narrative that I wanted to have.

That was going to be my next question: I’ve read other interviews where you say, in effect, “Hey — there are these things called stories; writers use them sometimes!” And so I’d wondered whether the fact that Mind Wide Open and Everything Bad had done so well gave you the space to do a new thing.

The other consistent thing, though, is that formally they’ve all been a little different. All five of them, you know. So, Interface Culture is kind of just a cultural criticism of the most academic sort. It’s the one that’s bridging my failed grad school life and my whatever came after that. And then Emergence is a real scientific travelogue, where I’m going to take you through these different ideas. Mind Wide Open, I’m a character in it, so that added this whole component to it. Everything Bad is just this pure work of persuasion. It’s all about getting you to come around to this one idea. And then The Ghost Map has this story. So I really just like both going on to new topics, with some common themes, but also trying out different forms. So the next one — all haiku.

Paul Muldoon has this set of poems that are all putatively instant messages, where each is formed into a haiku — it’s in Horse Latitudes. It’s pretty cool.

Damn … someone already did it.

No, no — it’s just one poem. You’ve joked on your blog about how reviewers want to see The Ghost Map as proceeding, naturally or not, from Everything Bad, when actually it’s a return to Emergence. But isn’t the vanishing mediator between your two most recent books your essay on The Spore, with its focus on the Long Zoom?

It’s true. It’s very funny how you don’t realize the connections between your work until you’re in the middle of doing it sometimes. Sometimes you see it all along and you kind of have mapped it out, but sometimes it just takes a long time, and that whole process is interesting. When I was writing The Ghost Map, it was only halfway through it that I realized that, in some ways, it was a sequel to Emergence: that it was all about the city, that it was about neighborhoods, that it was about this bottom-up intelligence in neighborhoods, and how cities solve problems from below. And so, (I think I mentioned this in another interview), I called up my editor and he asked, “How’s it going?” I replied, “It’s kind of like Emergence, you know, if Emergence were a disease thriller.” And he said, “Yeah, it’s like Emergence if the slime molds started killing people in chapter four.” And that became my mantra as I was writing it: “Just think Emergence with killer slime molds and you’re golden.”

As I was writing it, I was thinking of it kind of consciously as this sequel to Emergence, whatever that means, and then I finished it and I wanted to write this piece about Spore, because it’s just such an interesting game and while I for a while had a little imaginary sign above my desk saying, “No more articles about Will Wright!” I just keep breaking that rule because he keeps coming out with incredibly interesting things. And I really wanted to have this concept of the Long Zoom, and that was when I started to realize, “Oh, there is this connection”: Both in the sense that Spore is a game and Everything Bad is a book about games; Spore is a game that uses this Long Zoom perspective, and part of both the narrative technique of The Ghost Map and the kind of celebration of John Snow as a thinker was about that consilient crossing of scales. The subtler connection, which I’m sure you’re picking up as well, is the stuff in the “Appendix” to Everything Bad, where it’s saying that the way to think about culture is to think about it in this Long Zoom way, where you have a theory about how the brain works, which is based on neuroscience, which connects to a theory about how media interfaces with that brain, which is connected to a theory about how technology changes forms of media, which is connected to a theory about how broad social changes are connected to technological changes and media changes and brain changes. When you can tell the story across all those levels, that’s when you’re really describing what’s happening.

But that’s always been a feature present in your books, right? Because that was one of the things that was so interesting about Interface Culture, and also Feed, which obviously were more or less contemporaneous, was this sense of, “oh, look — there are these humanities-trained people who aren’t afraid of science, or who don’t see it as politically suspicious, or whatever else, and you can bring the two worlds into dialogue.”

Interface Culture was about culture and technology, and there were allusions to science in that book, but they were pretty half-baked. I did not do the kind of research that I needed to, and so there’s an allusion or two to chaos theory in that, and actually, in a funny way — if you go back and look at the agents chapter in that, the end of the agents chapter, where I look at what would a system driven by recommendations look like, there’s this whole “Long Tail” thing that’s there. It says, “certainly the culture would diversify — there would be more, smaller groups of things.” It was kind of ahead of its time, on the other hand, it didn’t have the science right at all.

I wonder whether your interest in the Victorian period is a consequence of your graduate training — I know you’ve joked that this is the first book you’re actually qualified to write, but you do come back to it a lot (Dickens is in all your indexes, for instance) or is there a deeper interest in the Victorian period and its relationship to our time?

I’m trying very slowly to write my dissertation.

Doesn’t everyone? Write it slowly, I mean?

I’m trying to spread it out over, like, 10 books, and at the end I’ll say, “here, look: somewhere in here is my dissertation!”

I suppose I should make a goal of trying to write one book without a reference to Dickens. It’s funny, I went to Columbia, in the English program, in a sense to do theory. I had been a semiotics major in college, and that was Brown in the late ’80s — it was the third most popular major in the humanities. It had no faculty of its own, but it was third: history, English, and semiotics. And so I went there because Said was there, and Gayatri Spivak was going to be there, and a bunch of other folks who were in that world–it was either going to be Duke or Columbia. I got there and they actually had this weird thing where they made you read novels, which [laughs] was odd, and then I fell in with Franco Moretti, who ended up having the most influence over my intellectual life at that period. He was really doing the nineteenth-century novel, and so I took a couple of different classes with him and I just got really interested in the period. I had always loved London, and I was interested in technology and culture, and so here you had industrialization hitting in this incredible way, and the novel. It was also interesting to write about the novel at that point because it was so central to the culture, in that it was the dominant explanatory form for that transition. I was able to write about cities and technology, and also write about the art of the period, but to write about the art of the period as if it were an active participant in making sense of that period. I got more and more interested in actual stuff.

Moretti has this essay on literary evolution, I think it’s called “On Literary Evolution” in Signs Taken for Wonders, and I remember having this amazing experience of reading it and seeing him walking down Broadway in Morningside Heights, and saying, “But Franco, I think you’re talking about science here in kind of a straight way; you’re saying, “science has these ideas about the world that may be true, so let’s see if we can apply some of those ideas to the study of literature, and you don’t seem to be deconstructing science at all” and he said, “Right.” “Interesting approach,” I thought. It just opened up this whole world — “oh, I could just borrow some of these ideas and not actually be battling those folks, I could actually ask them for help.” That was the beginning of a whole avenue that took a long time to explore.

Well, let me follow up on that for a moment and then come back to the Victorian bit. Since you speak theory, as we’ve just covered, I wondered if you could comment on the absence of Foucault from The Ghost Map. Because there’s such a close fit, that it almost seems like a pointed refusal.

That’s interesting. Maybe it is. Nobody’s asked me that, and, you know, Foucault was my idol when I was twenty, so maybe there’s some point of denying it. I literally have not read in — I mean, I have dog-eared copies, I read Discipline and Punish, Archaeology of Knowledge, and History of Sexuality, and — what’s the madness one?

Madness and Civilization

I read those books over and over again. Maybe I’ve just blocked it out in some way … it’s interesting. How would you have connected Foucault to Ghost Map?

Well, the whole idea of epidemiology as a kind of insertion of disciplinary techniques; you seem to be begging at the end for … a mass intrusion of disciplinary biopower into the Third World. It’s like you could be the devil-man of a certain kind of postcolonial science studies.

Right, right. That’s interesting.

And you do talk about Deleuze and Guattari, and Manuel De Landa in the afterword to Everything Bad

Deleuze was very trendy when I was at Brown, and I remember this seminar that I took that was just on D and G, and I remember asking, “guys, does anybody have any idea what these people are talking about? Because I feel like I’ve read Derrida very closely, and I’ve worked really hard and I understand that, and I understand Foucault, and I have no idea what these guys are talking about. And it was this weird moment when everybody said, “no, actually I don’t know, either.” It was De Landa who finally went back and made sense of it to me. Those first two books of his were just totally fascinating, and in a funny way, I always feel like with De Landa that he has this mission of relating everything back to Deleuze’s theory of the world, and I’m like, you know, Manuel, I really like your theory. I don’t need, actually, to have it all annotated with how this fits in with this 1000 Plateaus worldview — it’s fine, just run with your own ideas. It was one of those things where it took fifteen years for me to understand the idea of not thinking of the culture symbolically, but thinking of the culture as a network of forces that are at play with each other. And that is the underlying theory that’s there in Everything Bad, which I did first encounter in Deleuze. I just didn’t know what to do with it: It was one of those ideas where it just sits around for years and years in your head until you think, “oh, I get it finally.”

Back to Dickens, if we can. One of the things that I like about Interface Culture is the argument at the end that Great Expectations and Bleak House are basically interfaces for Victorian London for the people who live in it. And then you come back to Bleak House at the start of The Ghost Map, and Dickens is everywhere. I was just wondering: What’s Dickens for you? Because when you talk about novelists you like, you talk about Eliot and James, and the modernist novel, but Dickens is the example that you use.

To me, in all the novels that I’ve read from that period, the one that I still think is the best is Middlemarch. And in some ways I feel as if the ultimate criteria that I came out of grad school with is, and this is also a total Long Zoom idea, though I didn’t call it that at the time, that the way to judge these things ultimately is: are they able to represent the multiple scales of experience in some kind of common narrative thread? Middlemarch seems to me to have the best balance between a very private, personal struggle or series of struggles, intimate struggles between individual people, and then their broader community around them, whether it’s a town or a city, and then the political struggles of the time, and then the broad kind of movement of history and technology, the forces propelling those things. In Middlemarch, it feels to me as if you’ve got the best balancing act between all those layers, they’re all active participants in the plot. And so, to me, if I’m just ranking great novels, that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for. And Sentimental Education is like that in the same way in the French tradition, and then Balzac is kind of like that.

In Dickens, you have that same thing, it’s just that the greatness is just a tiny bit compromised by the comic element that exists on the level of character. So when you make it all the way down to the actual people, you never really buy them as human beings.

Right, they’re arguably not — that’s Forster’s point about Dickens’s “flat” characters …

Right, and Orwell’s to some extent: They never change, they’re not capable of change, they’re fixed. In some ways, I feel as though that was an understandable trade-off that he had to make, because the web was so complex that to zoom from these individual lives to this huge, sprawling city, and all the interconnections between them was so big that if you also had incredibly well-rounded, complicated characters it would just seem like too much, you know? And it may well be that the fact that he was as widely read as he was is partially because he made that decision. The comic part of it is a huge part of the success, and so, in his attempt to reach a wider audience, which is wonderful, that may have been a strategic decision to make, but it hurts him a bit in the overall evaluation. But ultimately he’s about the attempt, in the Interface Culture language, to make sense of something that’s too big to make sense of in an easy way, and to do it in a way that’s accessible to ordinary folks, to do so in a way that actually plays a role in mass culture.

One last quasi-Victorian question. The Ghost Map all the way through, and especially at the end, extols a bottom-up kind of knowledge, that you call “local” and “native” all the time. And if you’re telling a Victorian story, that word, native, really sounds like something. And then at the end of the book, you basically call for this imperialism by epidemiologists: What the developing nations, especially the ones with shantytowns, need to do is build public health institutions. I guess I was struck by that.

That’s interesting. Well, I don’t know: I did this radio show, “Start the Week,” in London, which is their version of “Fresh Air,” this big, huge radio show on Monday mornings. And it’s a panel show, and this is the second time I’ve done it, and both times I have been called, in a slightly pejorative way, “an American.” And this time, the critique was that there was a certain American optimism toward the end of the book. I buy part of that; I also would direct people to the section about nuclear terrorism, which is not optimistic at all, and is designed to be as terrifying as possible. But part of it really does come around to this question of the megacities, because you can look at what happened in London, and say, “this is a city that was totally out of control, and was literally drowning in its own filth, and all of these things were just terrible.” Part of the point of the book is to remind ourselves of how bad it was, and how relatively recently, and you see that there’s just an amazing amount of things that have in fact been solved, and are issues that people in cities like London just no longer worry about. So, the question then is, why are people worrying about them anywhere? What can we do about that? What is the cause of it? I think there are some people who in some ways have this vested interest in thinking of the developing world’s megacities as a disaster beyond repair, where it’s just this thing that’s never going to be fixed, and it’s just terrible. You could also say, no, they’re just going through what London did, on a bigger scale, and they’re going to go through this process, and so the question is, is it going to take them 100 years to go through this process, which seems like a big long waste of time, since we know how to solve a lot of these problems, or maybe they can do it faster. But it’s true, maybe there is something imperialistic about coming in and saying, you should have sewers, because sewers really help.

Well, not so much the sewers as, “Be like London. Do it our way.” I mean, wasn’t that sort of the original imperialist mission?

Yes, that’s right, though it depends on what “Be like London” is. If “be like London” is, “separate the drinking water from the waste,” then …

No, I know. I’m just giving you a hard time, because you do say that we should jettison the prejudices and superstitions that are associated with taking this knowledge on the road and focus on this technological issue — so I am just giving you a hard time.

I know; it’s ok — I need a hard time.

A couple of follow-ups about points you just raised: First, the American optimism thing. Developed nations didn’t draw the lesson, “let’s fully fund public health institutions and embrace bottom-up epistemology,” right? They embraced statist bureaucracy. And so I was wondering why we’re going to do it better now?

This came up in London at the thing I did with Eno, it came up in the audience Q and A a lot: so much of this comes around the idea of what you think of the shantytowns. If you think of the shantytowns as this great abomination, the worst thing that’s ever happened to humanity — “oh my god, a third of us are going to be living in these things” — and you combine that with the top-down history of the West, then you think, “my God, this is a total disaster.” It’s kind of like, do you take the Stewart Brand approach or the Mike Davis approach. (Though I haven’t read all of the Mike Davis book.) So if you take the approach: Look, there’s actually a lot of innovation going on, there’s a lot of bottom-up energy that’s coming into these shantytowns, and the places where they’ve been around a long time have in fact in many cases developed into real cities with real economic growth, that is very much emergent, bottom-up. It’s not that the multinational corporations or the IMF are coming in and funding these shantytowns; it’s the low-level economic energy that happens when people get together and trade and make it work for themselves in a dense urban area. So if you think, there’re a lot of things there, and in fact people are moving to these things, not necessarily because they’re being forced out of the land; they’re moving there because there’s more opportunity there, even though the conditions seem appalling to us. And so you look at that and you say, they’re still appalling, they shouldn’t be appalling, but it’s not a total loss. There’s a lot there that could develop into something much more promising.

And then the other thing was your mention of nuclear terrorism and how that’s terrifying. It’s funny, because I was really struck by the relative stoicism with which you envision urban nuclear terrorism. You have this line, “Perhaps urban nuclear explosions will turn out to be like hundred-year storms” — and that’s the good news, because otherwise they’ll just be going off every ten years. I’m wondering if our view of risk is distorted somehow because our society has become (relatively) so safe — do we panic about these things too much?

The problem with the conclusion is that it’s focused on a very specific question, which is: We’ve been on this extraordinary ride where we’ve gone from three per cent of the planet living in cities to 50 per cent living in cities now. The book lays out why that’s generally probably a good thing, and how if we’re going to have this planet of 8 billion people, that’s probably a better way to live, and a lot of good things have come from that development, and city life has generally over time gotten much, much better. And so, great! Let’s keep this process going. The question of that last chapter, then, is, “is there something that could derail that?” That’s where you get into this mode of — and I really spent some time trying to describe what would happen with a detonation at Broad Street, so that the scale and terror of that would be clear — but, on the other hand, the question is, would one of those things be enough to de-urbanize the planet? On some level, there’s a kind of cruel logic to asking that question; on the other hand, it’s a pretty interesting question, and you have to play out the scenarios. I think that on some level if one of them went off it probably wouldn’t in the long run — I mean, as I say in the book of a bioterror attack, my wife and I would probably leave Brooklyn, but we would probably come back, maybe after 10 years or something.

You can probably field-test this hypothesis in Sims — drop a bomb on Sim City …

Right, “what would happen if …?”