Mon 4 Jul 2011
Ideas are not formed in vacuums. This notion has charged Steven Johnson’s electric work over the past decade, in a series of provocative, bestselling journeys through pop-science and cultural theory. This is true at its most literal in The Invention of Air, an account of British polymath Joseph Priestley’s ‘discovery’ of oxygen, against the backdrop of radical new views of Christianity, coffeehouse culture, dragonflies, and the nascent American revolution. Ideas emerge not from genius or serendipity, but from an ecosystem built (often accidentally) to nurture and support.
Johnson uses ‘The Long Zoom’ to define the way he looks at the world—if you concentrate on any one level, there are patterns that you miss. When you step back and simultaneously consider, say, the sentience of a slime mold, the cultural life of downtown Manhattan and the behaviour of artificially intelligent computer code, new patterns emerge. In Emergence, he draws lines between these things by way of Jane Jacobs’ classic writing on the city in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. On their own, these areas of study are fascinating. Together, a more profound view of innovation takes shape.
Put simply: cities are like ant colonies are like software is like slime molds are like evolution is like disease is like sewage systems are like poetry is like the neural pathways in our brain. Everything is connected. His book The Ghost Map heads back to mid-nineteenth-century Britain, where the world (or at least London) is wrestling for the first time with the idea of the super-metropolis, and finding that it still has work to do on such basic questions as the amount of shit that needs to be channeled away from city streets, too much now to just pile up or sell to farmers on the urban fringe. While spending quality time with the underclass who make a living selling sewage in such a manner, it follows the journey of John Snow, a lone scientist struggling to explain a cholera outbreak that has wiped out half of Soho. Hunting for an explanation, Snow finds himself running into walls of perceived knowledge at a time when it was still thought that disease spread through a toxic form of air known as miasma. His rigorous work in proving that cholera was, in fact, spreading through the water—by plotting deaths along a map and tying them to the local water pump stationed not three feet from a damaged cesspit—became the basis of modern epidemiology, and led to fundamental changes in urban planning.
Johnson’s work is fascinating in the space it provides for both the brilliance of the individual and the wisdom of the crowd. His most provocative book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, makes a solid argument that the ‘worst’ forms of modern popular entertainment, computer games and broadcast TV, are actually helping us develop stronger, more versatile capacities as thinkers. Dense television narratives and the rigour of the non-linear computer game challenge and rewire brains, sparking critical and engaged thinking. His attempts to graph plot threads in Lost to explain this are particularly fun.
Last year, Johnson tied together his thinking to date in a kind of unified-theory-of-everything book, Where Good Ideas Come From. True to form, this begins with the invention of incubators for newborns in 1870s Paris, veers back to coral reefs and travels onwards, via the world wide web, to the deep of space. Ideas evolve like creatures, he says—through collisions, through drift, through serendipity, and sometimes through aggression. In that, Johnson is very much a student of Darwin, but also, in a twenty-first century kind of way, an heir.