From Steven Johnson comes Future Perfect, a new book about "progress in a networked age".
Combining the deft social analysis of Where Good Ideas Come From with the optimistic arguments of Everything Bad Is Good For You, New York Times bestselling author Steven Johnson's Future Perfect makes the case that a new model of political change is on the rise, transforming everything from local governments to classrooms, from protest movements to health care. Johnson paints a compelling portrait of this new political worldview -- influenced by the success and interconnectedness of the Internet, but not dependent on high-tech solutions -- that breaks with the conventional categories of liberal or conservative thinking.
With his acclaimed gift for multi-disciplinary storytelling and big ideas, Johnson explores this new vision of progress through a series of fascinating narratives: from the "miracle on the Hudson" to the planning of the French railway system; from the battle against malnutrition in Vietnam to a mysterious outbreak of strange smells in downtown Manhattan; from underground music video artists to the invention of the Internet itself.
At a time when the conventional wisdom holds that the political system is hopelessly gridlocked with old ideas, Future Perfect makes the timely and inspiring case that progress is still possible, and that new solutions are on the rise. This is a hopeful, affirmative outlook for the future, from one of the most brilliant and inspiring visionaries of contemporary culture.
This is contrary to what we've been hearing from The Shallows et al.
The Innovator's Cookbook is a collection of texts on innovation collected by Steven Johnson. The video is a pretty good introduction (and illustration) of what to expect from the book.
From bestselling author and Internet pioneer Steven Johnson, The Innovator's Cookbook (on sale October 4, 2011) is an essential book for anyone interested in innovation: the key texts on the topic from a wide range of fields as well as interviews with successful, real-world innovators, prefaced with a new essay by Johnson that draws upon his own experiences as an entrepreneur and author.
But the service also helps city leaders detect patterns that might otherwise have escaped notice. After the first survey of 311 complaints ranked excessive noise as the number one source of irritation among residents, the Bloomberg administration instituted a series of noise-abatement programs, going after the offenders whom callers complained about most often (that means you, Mister Softee). Similarly, clusters of public-drinking complaints in certain neighborhoods have led to crackdowns on illegal social clubs. Some of the discoveries have been subtle but brilliant. For example, officials now know that the first warm day of spring will bring a surge in use of the city's chlorofluorocarbon recycling programs. The connection is logical once you think about it: The hot weather inspires people to upgrade their air conditioners, and they don't want to just leave the old, Freon-filled units out on the street.
The 311 system has proved useful not just at detecting reliable patterns but also at providing insights when the normal patterns are disrupted. Clusters of calls about food-borne illness or sanitary problems from the same restaurant now trigger a rapid response from the city's health department.
Not discussed in the article is an assertion by my pal David that exclusive access to 311 data gives incumbent politicians -- like, say, Michael Bloomberg -- a distinct advantage when it comes to getting reelected. For instance, when campaigning on a neighborhood level, the incumbent can look at the 311 data for each neighborhood and tailor their message appropriately, e.g. promising to help combat noise in a neighborhood with lots of noise complaints or fix the streets in a neighborhood with lots of calls about potholes.
As a diverse city that supports countless industries and maverick interests, New York excels at creating those eclectic networks. Subcultures and small businesses generate ideas and skills that inevitably diffuse through society, influencing other groups. As the sociologist Claude Fischer put it in an influential essay on subcultures published in 1975, "The larger the town, the more likely it is to contain, in meaningful numbers and unity, drug addicts, radicals, intellectuals, 'swingers', health-food faddists, or whatever; and the more likely they are to influence (as well as offend) the conventional center of the society."
Kelly: The musician Brian Eno invented a wonderful word to describe this phenomenon: scenius. We normally think of innovators as independent geniuses, but Eno's point is that innovation comes from social scenes,from passionate and connected groups of people.
Johnson: At the end of my book, I try to look at that phenomenon systematically. I took roughly 200 crucial innovations from the post-Gutenberg era and figured out how many of them came from individual entrepreneurs or private companies and how many from collaborative networks working outside the market. It turns out that the lone genius entrepreneur has always been a rarity-there's far more innovation coming out of open, nonmarket networks than we tend to assume.
Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren't self-contained things; they're more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.
Speaking of Steven Johnson and new books, Alex Ross has a post about how Johnson's long zoom concept has influenced his music writing *and* has a new book of his own out soon called Listen to This (at Amazon). See how deftly I knitted that together in a Johnsonian way? Ahem. Anyway, here's what Listen to This is about:
It offers a panoramic view of the musical scene, from Bach to Björk and beyond. In the Preface, I say that the aim is to "approach music not as a self-sufficient sphere but as a way of knowing the world." I treat pop music as serious art and classical music as part of the wider culture; my hope is that the book will serve as an introduction to crucial figures and ideas in classical music, and also give an alternative perspective on modern pop.
The best part is that Ross' web site contains an extensive collection of audio, video, and images of the works mentioned in the book.
Steven Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, comes out in a couple weeks. As in many of Johnson's previous books, place plays a starring role -- Interface Culture was set in cyberspace, Emergence talked extensively about cities, The Ghost Map's epicenter was a water pump on Broad St. in London, and Mind Wide Open mapped out our brain space. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson steps back to ask: what is the relationship between place and ideas? What are the attributes common to places in which innovation happens? The trailer for the book explains further.
I've read the book and the last chapter's discussion of market/non-market environments & individual/network approaches in relation to innovation is alone worth the price of purchase, nevermind that the rest of it is interesting as well. Heck, even the appendix is fascinating; it contains a chronology of the key human inventions and innovations from 1400 to the present that is difficult to put down.
I look at human environments that have been unusually generative: the architecture of successful science labs, the information networks of the Web or the Enlightenment-era postal system, the public spaces of metropolitan cities, even the notebooks of great thinkers. But I also look at natural environments that have been biologically innovative: the coral reef and the rain forest, or the chemical soups that first gave birth to life's good idea.
With books becoming part of this universe, "booklogs" will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, "In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.") You'll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage's true meaning.
I recently used a Kindle for the first time and was really underwhelmed. I'd kind of wanted one but using it for few minutes turned me right off. The potential is definitely there, but the actual device is a bummer: too small, too slow, and too closed. Maybe using one for two weeks would change my mind...but I don't know. I'm skeptical of the future that Johnson sketches out for the ebook, and it's not just the Kindle.
When the web and the first browsers were built -- mostly by scientists, not by billion-dollar retailers or publishing conglomerates -- the openess that Johnson talks about as a metaphor for how ebooks will work was baked in: viewing source, copy/paste of text, the ability to download images, etc. All of the early web's content was also free (as in beer).
Aside from some notable exceptions like Project Gutenberg, e-books are currently only as open and free as the publishing companies (and Amazon and Google) want them to be. I think those two initial conditions change the playing field. Copy/paste/publish to your booklog without significant restrictions or payment? Sharing a passage of a book with someone who doesn't own that book, as verified through a third-party DRM system? Good luck! Readers will have to fight for those kinds of features. And perhaps we'll eventually win. But for right now, the bookloggers that Johnson speaks of are only two letters away from how the publishing industry might label them: bootleggers.
Steven Johnson takes on the future of journalism and newspapers using the ecosystem metaphor that he successfully deployed in The Invention of Air. Johnson argues that journalism in the future will look a lot like how technology and politics are covered now because those two topics are the "old growth forests of the web", i.e. they've been covered long enough on the web that old media has had time to adjust, react, and in many cases, go out of business in the face of that coverage.
The funny thing about newspapers today is that their audience is growing at a remarkable clip. Their underlying business model is being attacked by multiple forces, but their online audience is growing faster than their print audience is shrinking. As of January, print circulation had declined from 62 million to 49 million since my days at the College Hill Bookstore. But their online audience has grown from zero to 75 million over that period. Measured by pure audience interest, newspapers have never been more relevant. If they embrace this role as an authoritative guide to the entire ecosystem of news, if they stop paying for content that the web is already generating on its own, I suspect in the long run they will be as sustainable and as vital as they have ever been. The implied motto of every paper in the country should be: all the news that's fit to link.
As such, it is a metaphorical representation of the fundamental ideology of the United States; the past is no constraint on the future, and each individual should strive resolutely for personal advance despite whatever the past may hold. The child born in a log cabin may achieve the presidency, an immigrant boy who grows up in the slums of Brooklyn may become a real-estate magnate, an Ivy-educated scion of wealth may wind up on a bread line, and a double green will speed you to the fore. Though there are winners and losers, initial conditions are no determinant of outcome in the freedom of America.
Tom Armitage references both Johnson and Costikyan in his response, Taking Turns.
Candyland is a great first game; literally, the very first. It teaches turn-taking. It teaches the mores, the manners, the culture of playing boardgames. Later, when a child comes to a game where the rules are more complex, the turn process more intricate, the customs of gameplay are already learned; rather than focusing on learning the social interactions, they can focus on the complexity of the game itself.
I'm not big into the "moral message" interpretation of pop culture, but plenty of critics of digital games are, so just for the record: what sort of message does Candy Land send to our kids? (And I'm not just talking about all the implicit advertisements for cane sugar products.) It says you are powerless, that your destiny is entirely determined by the luck of the draw, that the only chance you have of winning the game lies in following the rules, and accepting the cards as they come. Who wants to grow up in that kind of universe?
On the other hand, games of chance allow children of all ages and abilities to play the same games together and experience both winning and losing.
The cycle of photosynthesis is the cycle of life, says science journalist Morton (Mapping Mars). Green leaves trap sunlight and use it to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and emit life-giving oxygen in its place. Indeed, plants likely created Earth's life-friendly oxygen- and nitrogen-rich biosphere. In the first part, Morton, chief news and features editor of the leading science journal, Nature, traces scientists' quest to understand how photosynthesis works at the molecular level. In part two, Morton addresses evidence of how plants may have kick-started the complex life cycle on Earth. The book's final part considers photosynthesis in relation to global warming, for, he says, the Earth's plant-based balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen is broken: in burning vast amounts of fossil fuels, we are emitting more carbon dioxide than the plants can absorb. But Morton also explores the possibility that our understanding of photosynthesis might be harnessed to regain that balance.
It has an organizing theme of how innovative ideas emerge and spread in a society, while integrating many different threads along the way: 18th-century London coffeehouse culture; the Adams-Jefferson letters; the origins of ecosystem science; the giant dragonflies of the Carboniferous Era; the impact of energy deposits on British political change; the discovery of the gulf stream; the Alien and Sedition acts; Jefferson's bible; the Lunar Society; mob violence; Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions; Ben Franklin's kite experiment.
It's also not, somehow, 6500 pages. I thought for sure that this was going to be some sort of long zoom book, not a book with a long zoom approach.
Earlier this week, Toshiba announced that they would no longer be manufacturing or marketing HD DVD players, which effectively ended the HD disc format war going on between HD DVD and the victorious Blu-ray format. Later that day, author and tech gadget enthusiast Steven Johnson twittered the following:
Chuckling at the fact that the ENTIRE PLATFORM died a month after I bought my HD-DVD player.
Thinking that it would be interesting to hear the tale of an early adopter in the age of hyper-obsolescence, I sent Johnson a few questions that he was kind enough to answer.
Jason Kottke: Warner Brothers went exclusively Blu-ray on January 4. When did you buy your player?
Steven Johnson: Basically our old DVD player broke, and so I figured we might as well buy a next generation player if we were buying a new one. Being the renowned technology futurist that I am, I analyzed the marketplace and decided that the HD-DVD/Blu-ray standoff was going to be around for a long time, and so I might as well just pick one and go with it. I think I had HD-DVD in my head because I had been thinking about buying the XBOX-360 HD-DVD accessory, so that's what I bought. Right around December 20th I think.
Kottke: The pace of HD DVD's collapse was dizzying, even by contemporary standards. How do you feel about owning a brand new piece of obsolete technology? You're an early adopter...is this just how the game is played, even at this fantastic velocity?
Johnson: I thought it was pretty funny. I mean, the Betamax adopters at least had a few years to nag their VHS friends about the better picture quality, before the format died a slow death. But HD-DVD -- they just took it out back and shot it! I think that's what's so striking about this. I can't remember a standards war where the winner was crowned so definitively. For a few weeks there, I felt like the technology world was taunting me for my decision: I got email from Netflix saying that they were NEVER going to buy another HD-DVD again.
The consolation prize is that Apple introduced HD rentals with the AppleTV -- which we also have -- right as HD-DVD was dying, so I might be able to bypass Blu-Ray altogether, just out of spite.
Kottke: Do you think Blu-ray will achieve the popularity that DVDs did or is the age of shuttling bits around on silver platters over?
Johnson: I really hope so. I've been using the new Apple TV version for the past 48 hours, and the whole HD movie rental process is just completely painless, other than the fact that they should give you 48 hours to watch the movie once you've started it. (By the way, I don't think enough people have commented on that Take Two upgrade: it is basically an entirely new product, and Apple just gave away the upgrade for free -- I think as an implicit acknowledgment that the first iteration wasn't fully baked. Still, how cool.)
Kottke: So you're the owner of a machine that will perform its task perfectly for many years to come but is de-facto useless because you can't buy any new media for it beyond the ~400 currently available titles. Is this becoming a more commonplace situation for consumers?
Johnson: Yes and no. There are more new standards proposed, and new innovations, and thus more obsolescence, but more and more of the new standards are coming in the form of software not hardware, so the transitions aren't nearly as painful as my HD-DVD misadventure. My AppleTV box that I bought last year wouldn't let me watch HD movies or browse Flickr photos, but after twenty minutes of a software update, I can now enjoy both with ease. I think that experience is probably going to be more commonplace than my getting burned buying into the wrong silver platter.
The most encouraging word we have so far had about television came from a grade-school principal we encountered the other afternoon.
"They say it's going to bring back vaudeville," he said, "but I think it's going to bring back the book."
Before television, he told us, his pupils never read; that is, they knew how to read and could do it in school, but their reading ended there. Their entertainment was predominantly pictorial and auditory -- movies, comic books, radio.
Now, the principal said, news summaries are typed out and displayed on the television screen to the accompaniment of soothing music, the opening pages of dramatized novels are shown, words are written on blackboards in quiz and panel programs, commercials are spelled out in letters made up of dancing cigarettes, and even the packages of cleansers and breakfast foods and the announcers exhibit for identification bear printed messages.
It's only a question of time, our principal felt, before the new literacy of the television audience reaches the point where whole books can be held up to the screen and all their pages slowly turned.
If you stop thinking of TV in the specific sense as a box on which ABC, CBS, and NBC are shown and instead imagine it in the general sense as a service that pipes content into the home to be shown on a screen, the prediction hits pretty close to the mark. The experience of using the web is not so different than reading pages of words that are "held up to the screen" while we scroll slowly through them. If we can imagine that what Paul Otlet and Vannevar Bush described as the "televised book" and the "memex" corresponds to today's web, why not give our high school principal here the same benefit of the doubt?
OK, Kottke faithful: this is it—the last of my interviews on The State We're In. I know you've all come to know and love Jason's short, link-y goodness (so do I) & am happy to say it returns tomorrow. Meantime, I can't think of a better way to cap off this week's talks than with Steven Berlin Johnson. Author of two of my favorite books, Emergence and The Ghost Map, Steven also heads up one of the more interesting social networking sites, outside.in. He spent some time this week exchanging ideas on the Web's various geographies and the different ways we navigate both the physical and mental worlds we inhabit.
JT: Outside.in is a great idea—I love the kind of Jane Jacobs/crowded sidewalks thing you're striving for—or seem to be: how is it working out? Have you been surprised by anything? Any new ideas?
SBJ: It has been really fun and rewarding. I had seriously resisted the idea of starting a new company, because my lifestyle as a writer for the past five or six years had been pretty amazing. But it's just such an interesting problem that we're trying to solve at outside.in, and it's such an interesting time to be trying to solve it—so I ultimately couldn't help myself. In a way there are a lot of parallels to the timing of the first two web sites that I helped build—trying to build an online magazine (FEED) in 1995, or a community-authored news site (Plastic) in 2000 is quite a bit like trying to build out the geographic web in 2007.
One of the big surprises has to do with the long tail of geography. When we originally conceived of the site, we thought the tail was all about neighborhoods—that was the geographic niche that big media had traditionally ignored in favor of cities and greater metro areas. But it turns out the tail is even longer: a huge amount of our traffic goes to our place pages, where you can see all the discussion from around the web about a specific public school, or park, or restaurant, or real estate development. So we've started adjusting the UI for the site to reflect that focus; the new city front door has a "Places" tab that lets you see the most talked about places in your community.
But I think the most surprising thing about it is how hard it is to convince people of the general importance of geo-tagging pages. I've just written a little essay—called "The Pothole Paradox"—to coincide with the new version we're launching this week, and one of the things that I talk about is the fact that the Web itself was made possible by standardizing the virtual location of pages. And in many ways, what made blogging so valuable was that you had standardized time stamps for pages as well. So we had virtual space and actual time, but not actual space. But it turns out there are amazing things that can be done if the geographic location of pages (the location they're describing, not where their servers are located) is machine-readable. Flickr showed this with photos, of course, and we're trying to make the case for it as well.
JT: One thing I wonder about is whether or not you could (or, even so, should) consider other kinds of geographies: of the mind, for instance. I live in Minneapolis, but as a writer I spend a week to a month every year in New York. My daily paper—to the extent that this notion even makes sense anymore: but until very recently it was an actual paper—is The New York Times. Isn't one of the great things about the Web—and specifically things like blogs and social networking sites—that we have the tools to build dense communities that map to more than just the physical geography of our lives? And these geographies interact in interesting ways (consider the richness of Thoreau's remark: "I have traveled a great deal in Concord."): are we bound to live in a world in which these maps—and their attendant communities—are disconnected?
SBJ: I think you're absolutely right. And yet the fact that the Web creates a new kind of semantic or social geography untethered to physical space doesn't mean that the old kind of geography disappears. 99% of the Web 2.0 companies that have launched over the past five years have been, in effect, pursuing those kinds of new associations that you describe, but there hasn't been nearly as much focus on the possibility of using the Web to enhance physical geography. So we're trying to correct that imbalance. If everyone was doing hyperlocal, and no one was doing, say, social networks, I'd probably start a social network site.
What we're really grappling with at outside.in is the fact that we built the site around a very specific ideal-case geography: Brooklyn. In other words, it's a site that works really, really well in communities where you find high population density, many local bloggers, intense gentrification and development debates, and clearly-defined neighborhoods. But it turns out the rest of the country (much less the world) doesn't always look like Brooklyn. So that's one of the things we've been tweaking in terms of the way that the database is structured.
JT: In an interview with Jason B. Jones in Pop Matters last year, the two of you talked quite a bit about the Long Zoom as a kind of guiding principle of your books, specifically in my two favorites: Emergence and The Ghost Map. In the latter, the zoom between the physical and mental map of the world—the long zoom from our senses and surroundings to our greater ideas about those things—zoomed up quite naturally into error & disaster. Then John Snow recalibrated things, created a new, different path along which to zoom, and virtually eliminated cholera from London. You and Jason referenced the great Eames documentary, Powers of Ten, in this regard: but isn't this metaphor broken—or at least inexact? We're not really just going up and down—but more like traversing an n-dimensional graph. Outside.in gives us a way of moving in certain directions—but I wonder whether you have any thoughts on how the blogosphere, the ways in which it creates large numbers of short paths, helps us navigate the world? Or does it, as the complainers say, just muck it up?
SBJ: One of the great things that Jane Jacobs wrote about in Life and Death of the Great American Cities is the design principle of favoring short blocks over longer ones—the crooked streets of the Village versus the big avenues of Chelsea—because short blocks diversify the flow of pedestrian traffic. In an avenue system, everyone feeds onto the big streets, and you have insanely overcrowded streets and then side streets that are deserted (which leads to storefront real estate that only the big chains can afford, and real estate that no one wants because there's not enough foot traffic). In a short block model, the streets tend to gravitate towards that middle zone where there are always some people on them, but not too many.
I've always thought that the blogosphere can be thought of as a kind of small blocks model for the Web, whereas the original portal idea was much more of a big avenues model. Yes, there are some increasing returns effects that lead to some A-list bloggers having millions of visitors, and yes, there is a long tail of bloggers who have almost no traffic. But the healthiest part of the curve is what Dave Sifry once called "the big butt"—the middle zone between the head and tail of the Power Law distribution, all those sites with 1000 to 100,000 readers. That's the part of the blogosphere that I think is really cause for celebration, because something like that just didn't exist before on that scale. And as Yochai—who of course is very smart about all this—points out: those mid-list sites also communicate up the chain to the A-listers, who can broadcast out the interesting developments in the mid-list so that those stories enter a broader public dialogue. Maybe the new slogan is, "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 Digg links."
Your "n-dimensional graph" is exactly right, and it's exactly that shape that makes the "death of public space" or "Daily Me" argument so silly. There are plenty things to complain about in the kinds of communication that the Internet fosters (think about the spam alone), but the idea that this environment is somehow encouraging too much filtering, too much echo-chamber insularity, is a fundamental misreading of the medium.
JT: Finally, I want to stump for story for a minute—but then raise some questions about their role & interaction with the Web and blogs and the ubiquity/inexpense of media produciton. A part of me thinks that every additional word I say about something I publish diminishes it in some way: I write a book with (very nearly) exactly the right combination and number of words to mean what I say. And then several other parts of me chime in to say, "But you know that's not the whole story!" or "Don't you wish you could say 'X' now—after it's too late to include it in the book?" You point, for instance, to Ralph Frerichs' John Snow site at the end of The Ghost Map and mention Tufte's work and there are a host of reproductions of the map available (including this one, in Flash). I also think that, by now, we all know that authorial intention isn't all it's cracked up to be—and yet, it's not trivial. Given that just about everything is connected to everything else now, what is the role of the discrete story?
SBJ: I'm kind of a traditionalist when it comes to the book form, particularly the writing process. The book is fundamentally a one-to-one form, in the sense that 99% of the time, you're talking directly as a single author to a single reader, and the whole interaction is about this very intimate exchange (though of course it's a very one-way exchange). No doubt you end up having many different readers if your books are successful, but the actual experience of the form keeps returning to that direct encounter between two individual minds. I love that about books, and I'm probably happiest and most at home when I'm in the middle of writing one. And so that part of the constraint I really embrace; I almost never discuss the book I'm currently writing on my blog, for instance.
But at the same time, I love all these new forms that are emerging where the relationships between authors and readers are far more complicated and multi-dimensional, which also causes the text itself to blur around the edges. When you look at something like TechMeme, it's about as far as you can get from that one-to-one exchange. And that's great. Or BoingBoing—I mean, those guys might have had only 25 phone calls, as Cory said, but there's an incredible group jam going on there that's entirely distinct from the much more private, interior space of book writing.
For me, the blog is where the edges of the book form blur, and blur in a really nice way—after the book comes out. I can't imagine publishing a book now without having the blog to promote, respond, re-evaluate, extend, connect—even retract! It's not quite as impossible to imagine as writing without Google (which seems like writing a book on a typewriter to me now) but it's close.
I'm loving the new 1.1.1 update to the iPhone. Best new features for me: the double-tap of the Home button to go to your address book favorites (first suggested by Steven Johnson shortly after the phone's introduction) and more alert ringtone choices for when a new text message comes in. I still wish I could set that alert volume independently from the main ringtone volume, but this is a good start...I'll be able to hear my texts coming in again.
Wired's cover feature for the March 2007 issue is Snack Culture. "Movies, TV, songs, games. Pop culture now comes packaged like cookies or chips, in bite-size bits for high-speed munching. It's instant entertainment - and boy, is it tasty." Even though kottke.org is a part of this culture, I still prefer a full meal.
Wii Sports trades the onscreen complexity of goals and objectives and puzzles for the physical, haptic complexity of bodily movement. Since the days of Pong, games have been simplifying the intricacies of movement into unified codes of button pressing and joystick manipulation. What strikes you immediately playing Wii Sports -- and particularly Tennis -- is this feeling of fluidity, the feeling that subtle, organic shifts in your body's motion will lead to different results onscreen. My wife has a crosscourt slam she hits at the net that for the life of me I haven't been able to figure out; I have a topspin return of soft serves that I've half-perfected that's unhittable. We both got to those techniques through our own athletic experimentation with various gestures, and I'm not sure I could even fully explain what I'm doing with my killer topspin shot. In a traditional game, I'd know exactly what I was doing: hitting the B button, say, while holding down the right trigger. Instead, my expertise with the shot has evolved through the physical trial-and-error of swinging the controller, experimenting with different gestures and timings. And that's ultimately what's so amazing about the device. Games for years have borrowed the structures and rules -- as well as the imagery -- of athletic competition, but the Wii adds something genuinely new to the mix, something we'd ignored so long we stopped noticing that it was missing: athleticism itself.
He's not exactly right -- for example, drifting in Mario Kart is difficult to do until you develop a "touch" for it and is not easy to explain to others -- but the Wii does take it to a new level.
- a bacterium
- the human body
- a geographical map
- a man
- a working friendship
- a household
- a city government
- a neighborhood
- a waste management system1
- an epidemic
- a city
- human civilization
You hooked yet? Well, you should be. As the narrative unfolds around the 1854 London cholera epidemic, author Steven Johnson weaves all of these social, geographical, and biological structures/webs/networks into a scientific parable for the contemporary world. The book is at its best when it zooms among these different scales in a Powers of Ten-like fashion (something Johnson calls The Long Zoom), demonstrating the interplay between them: the way the geography of a neighborhood affected the spread of a virus, how ideas spreading within a social context are like an epidemic, or the comparison between the organism of the city and the geography of a bacterial colony within the human colon. None of this is surprising if you've read anything about emergence, complexity, or social scale invariance, but Johnson effectively demonstrates how tightly coupled the development of (as well as our understanding of) viral epidemics and large cities were across all of these scales.
The other main theme I saw in the book is how inherently messy science is. Unlike many biographies, The Ghost Map doesn't try to tie everything up into a nice little package to make a better story. The cholera epidemic and its resolution was sloppy; there was no aha! moment where everyone involved understood what was going on and knew what had to be done. But the scientific method applied by John Snow to the situation was solid and as more evidence became available over the years, his theory of and solution to cholera epidemics were revealed as actual fact. Johnson reminds us that that's how science works most of the time; science is a process, not a set of facts and theories. During the recent debate in the US over evolution and intelligent design, I felt a reluctance on the part of scientists to admit to this messiness because it would give an opening to their detractors: "haha, so you admit you don't know what's going on at all!" Which is unfortunate, because science is powerful in its nuance and rough edges (in some ways, science is what happens at the margins) in helping us understand ourselves and the world we live in.
 Had Mark Kurlansky written this book, it would have been called "Shit: How Human Effluence Changed the World". ↩
Steven Johnson on The Long Zoom, "the satellites tracking in on license-plate numbers in the spy movies; the Google maps in which a few clicks take you from a view of an entire region to the roof of your house; the opening shot in 'Fight Club' that pulls out from Edward Norton's synapses all the way to his quivering face as he stares into the muzzle of a revolver; the fractal geometry of chaos theory in which each new scale reveals endless complexity." And that's just the introduction to an interview of Will Wright about his new Long Zoom game, Spore.
Steven Johnson's thoughts on Web 2.0. He compares it to a rain forest, with the information flow through the web being analogous to the efficient nutrient flow through a forest. "Essentially, the Web is shifting from an international library of interlinked pages to an information ecosystem, where data circulate like nutrients in a rain forest." Compare with Tim O'Reilly's recent thoughts on the subject.
Steven Johnson reports on Dodgeball for Discover magazine and proceeds to riff on cities, Jane Jacobs, and the Long Tail. When considering the effects of the Long Tail, there's a different between being able to d/l music by an obscure band when you live in a rural area and having the opportunity of seeing that band in person with other likeminded folks. (via dens)
I recently reread Steven Johnson's Emergence and was struck by how familar it all seemed, even for a reread. Flipping through the bibliography at the end, I realized why: much of my reading list over the past four years has come directly from those few pages in the back of the book:
Since reading the book, I've also heard talks or read articles by other folks mentioned in the bibliography, like Franz De Waal, Eric Bonabeau, Kevin Kelly, James Howard Kunstler, Marvin Minsky, etc. I'd read a few things on the topic before Emergence, but it was really a catalyst for a area of study I didn't quite know I was focusing on until much later.
Drawing from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics, and literary theory, Johnson argues that the junk culture we're so eager to dismiss is in fact making us more intelligent. A video game will never be a book, Johnson acknowledges, nor should it aspire to be -- and, in fact, video games, from Tetris to The Sims to Grand Theft Auto, have been shown to raise IQ scores and develop cognitive abilities that can't be learned from books. Likewise, successful television, when examined closely and taken seriously, reveals surprising narrative sophistication and intellectual demands.
To me, the most interesting question about the whole issue is whether the kind of learning that Johnson focuses on in the book outweighs the potentially negative aspects of what is generally thought of as our dumbed down and getting dumber culture...in some ways, it's a question of the importance of how we learn versus what we learn. Unfortunately, that question lies largely outside the scope of the book and is probably an entire book of its own, but I still asked Steven about it in an email I sent him shortly after finishing the book. Here's a gently edited excerpt:
It was hard for me to read about pop culture making us smarter because I'm so conditioned to think otherwise, but in the specific way you describe, I absolutely agree with your arguments. There's obviously a lot more effort and learning involved watching The Apprentice than in watching The Joker's Wild. The gaming bit of the book even influenced my thinking on this post about Katamari Damacy.
I guess I'm still kind of wondering if the positive effect you talk about balances out the negative effects (if any). If TV these days is conditioning us to be more socially agile (as far as keeping track of social connections), what else is it conditioning us to think and feel? Maybe that's outside the question of whether it's making us smarter or not. I ran across this interview of David Foster Wallace from 1993 a couple of weeks ago, and Wallace is a notorious TV critic, although I think he would pretty much agree with most of EBIGFY:
"But what's seldom acknowledged is how complex and ingenious TV's seductions are. It's seldom acknowledged that viewers' relationship with TV is, albeit debased, intricate and profound."
But I don't think he'd agree that TV is good for you:
"I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art."
Is media whose primary purpose (through, as you argue, the addition of complexity) is to spend more time in the lives of the people who consume it (through repeat viewings, game replayings, etc.) really good for people? I have doubts.
Near the end of the book, you offhandedly introduce the familiar metaphor of the media diet (I think it's only mentioned once on p194). Dunno why exactly, but it really grabbed me. On the one hand, it's taken for granted among people I know who tend to consume lots of media that media is something that needs be approached in a dietary sense. I need to read more or watch less TV or watch better TV or balance out my online reading with some books...that's just how we think now. I don't think that concept existed 20-30 years ago but now there's so much media that we need to balance it all. Tying that back into food, the hunter gatherers wouldn't have known what a balanced diet was because they were eating an all meat and wild fruit/veg diet, basically whatever they could get their hands on. When agriculture rolled around and was greatly enhanced by industrialization, we were overwhelmed by choice and the idea of a balanced diet became a possibility and necessity.
At the same time, we have a situation in the US now where food is engineered to maximize the amount purchased by an individual. That means larger portions of high-sugar, high-fat foods....lots and lots of stuff that tastes good and makes you want to eat more of it as soon as possible. And it's making us fat and unhealthy. Media is engineered to work much the same way and I'm wondering if that's a good thing.
For those that want to read more about it, the book and the ideas contained therein have been excerpted in a couple of places already:
Steven Johnson says watching TV makes you smarter. The argument is that media has had to get more cognitively challenging to hold the attention of viewers. Evolutionarily speaking, attention is the scarce commodity that creates competition here, driving adaptation in the direction of more social and narrative complexity to hold that attention.
How well does the 6 year-old analysis of how we use and will use information technology contained in the pages of Interface Culture hold up? Not too bad, actually. Consider the following paragraph from the "Windows" chapter on what metaforms the Web might be capable of supporting (paragraph breaks and links mine):
Over the next decade, this stitching together of different news and opinion sources will slowly become a type of journalism in its own right, a new form of reporting that synthesizes and digests the great mass of information disseminated online everyday. (Clipping services have occupied a comparable niche for years, though their use is largely limited to corporate executives and other journalists.)
The beautiful thing about this new meta-journalism is that it doesn't require a massive distribution channel or extravagant licensing fees. A single user with a Web connection and only the most rudimentary HTML skills can upload his or her overview of the day's news. If the editorial sensibility is sharp enough, this kind of metajournalism could easily find enough of an audience to be commercially sustainable, given the limited overhead required to run such a service.
When the whole blog thing blew up huge and then people like Rafat Ali, Andrew Sullivan, and Nick Denton started making money off of them, Johnson must have danced around the apartment in his underpants (perhaps like Tom Cruise in Risky Business) shouting, "I told you so, I told you so, I called the hell out of that one! In your face!"