October 02, 2006

The Ghost Map


When Steven Johnson says his next book is going to be about cholera, you can't help but be a little surprised. Yet while it has very little to do with Johnson's recent books on video games, television and brain machines, The Ghost Map is much less a departure and much more of a welcom return to the territory of his first two books. Follow the paths set by Interface Culture and Emergence till the point where they converge and you will find The Ghost Map. It's easily Johnson's best work yet and perhaps the first classic urbanist text of the new century.

The setting is precise, a handful of blocks in London's Soho neighborhood, late summer 1854. The stakes however are impossibly large, with London at the lead, the world in 1854 is getting increasingly urban, and the more urban it gets the greater the threat of cholera becomes. Cholera's vector of transmission is the digestive tract. It comes into the body through drinking water, and exits the other end, taking with it an extraordinary amount of a person's internal fluids, and usually their life with it. This leaves the cholera bacteria with a rather nasty biological challenge, it's main point of reproduction is the small intestine, yet getting from one person's small intestine to another is quite a journey. For most of history this meant cholera played quite a minor character.

As the industrial revolution pushed more and more of the world into cities, a unique opportunity for cholera arrived. When hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people squeeze into the tight streets of a city, their shit tends to flow downhill, and often straight into the same river that their drinking water is pulled from. The city literally began to function as a shit eating, or more accurately drinking, machine and cholera epidemics began to pop up regularly. The result was often tens of thousands of deaths in short periods of time. If the urban form was going to continue to grow, and all the pressures of the industrial age were pushing in that direction, it would need to deal with the problem of cholera. In London, in Soho, late summer of 1854 in a remarkable series of events the city essentially learned how to deal with cholera and this is the story of The Ghost Map.

Johnson approach to history clearly owes a certain debt to Manuel DeLanda's A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History but this book is almost it's inverse, centering on a highly specific point in time and space, and following a potent narrative. Perhaps you can call it "A Thousand Hours of Linear History". Those compact hours that form the core of the book are in a way an intricate tracing of something straight out of DeLanda's work, the crossing of a material threshold which then allows humans to settle into entirely new urban formations. For only by conquering, or at least learning to manage, cholera can people and cities evolve towards the massive scales we see today. DeLanda however labors hard to produce almost entirely material histories, invoking odd concepts like robot historians and the viewpoint of minerals themselves. Johnson follows something of this form when he talks about bacteria and cities, but then interjects two intensely human actors into the picture to produce a radically different sort of book.

The most striking academic parallel to The Ghost Map is not DeLanda's work at all but Bruno Latour's The Pasteurization of France. It's been a long time time since I cracked upon that tome, and honestly I'm not certain I ever finished it, but Latour is telling a strikingly similar tale to Johnson, tracing the complex interplay of factors that lead Louis Pasteur to his ideas and the world into adopting him. Latour of course is almost deliberately obtuse in his explorations, his goal at the time was to multiply the possible explanations, so once again Johnson again takes a somewhat inverted approach. Johnson is of course one of the clearest and must lucid of the current crop of science and technology writers. Given Latour's recent exhalation of the art of writing as core to the successful application of his Actor Network Theory, one has to wonder if Johnson may have inadvertently produced one of ANTs finest documents.

Like Latour Johnson breaks from the hero model of scientific discovery. But while Latour and his ANT practicing colleagues attempt to introduce as many actors, both human and non-human, into the story as possible, Johnson finds a much more coherent middle ground. The traditional telling of this story focuses around John Snow the lone scientist fighting against prevailing opinion, and Johnson does not try to discredit him, but instead adds three more actors to the stage, the microscopic cholera bacterium, the massive water infrastructure of London itself, and the very human and very social figure of Reverend Henry Whitehead. The result is a complex yet compellingly clear tale of social, scientific, organic and urban forces interweaving to produce both a tragic outbreak of disease and ultimately it's solution. It may well be the best book on urbanism since City of Quartz, yet way more optimistic, and well worthy of a space next to Jacobs on your urbanism shelf.

Posted by Abe at October 2, 2006 12:34 PM

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)