Steven Johnson has a Hammer

Last Friday I attended Steven Johnson’s talk at the Long Now Foundation. Titled “The Long Zoom,” Steven explores the trend towards looking at systems at a variety of scales. This has become a theme of Steven’s recent writings, starting with his book The Ghost Map, where an appreciation of factors at various scales was required to address cholera outbreaks, and his feature on Will Wright and his upcoming game Spore, which allows players to track life, beginning at the cellular level, and steadily complexifying until you’re managing societies on planets.

I am intrigued by Johnson’s work, because I do think he’s tapping into a contemporary trend around people’s ability to work at multiple scales at once. It’s obvious in the popularity of mapping services, where you’re constantly zooming in and out to understand context at different levels. In a total other realm, I see it as a requirement in the practice of information architecture — when we teach IA, we’re very conscious about how the practitioner has to bounce between the global and the local in designing a robust system.

However, Johnson needs to be careful that he doesn’t get too enamored of his framework. It’s tempting for a public intellectual to put forth a model, and try to get everything to fit within it. Gladwell tried this with The Tipping Point, coming up with ideas around “mavens,” “salesmen,” and “connectors” that don’t really hold water. In his presentation on Friday, Johnson began to fall into the same trap.

A key point of The Ghost Map is that in order to solve the problem of cholera transmission, John Snow needed to be able to think at many levels. Johnson pointed out these levels, in ascending order:

Microbes — Organs — Humans — Neighborhoods — Data Systems — Cities

Snow believed cholera existed at the microbe level; this was because, as a doctor, his familiarity with organs lead him to that conclusion; humans were the level of transmission; neighborhoods were the level of spread, in that same neighborhoods got it while others didn’t; data systems, in particular statistical tables of deaths, made apparent the broader trends; cities are organisms with infrastructure that handles (or doesn’t) hygiene and waste.

I basically buy this “zoom,” (though I’m skeptical of “data systems,” which feels like One Of These Things That’s Not Like The Other Ones.) Where Johnson begins to fall, though, is his attempt to provide a “Long Zoom” on the “miasma” theory of cholera transmission (which preceded Snow’s theory, and was proven wrong). It’s not worth going into the detailed of miasma theory (basically: smell is disease; kill the smell, remove the disease), but Johnson laid out these levels (again, from small to large):

human sensory system — “great men” — contemporary politics — technology — urban development — cultural traditions

I might be able to buy “human sensory system” at the smallest level, and maybe “great men” at the next level up, but then everything else is pretty much a mush. I particularly don’t understand how “technology” is below “urban development” — technology is a fundamental human endeavor, and intimately wrapped up with culture.

My real point, though, is less about the outcome than the process. Johnson has his “Long Zoom” hammer, and every system he sees looks like a nail. And while the Long Zoom works great for things with truly physical scale (as exemplified in the film Powers of 10), I suspect it is pretty much useless for concerns which are fundamentally semantic.

This is why, listening to Johnson’s talk, I began thinking about Weinberger’s new book, Everything is Miscellaneous. Among Weinberger’s many points is the messiness of categorization and the meaninglessness of arbitrary distinctions. Johnson, however, expends a lot of effort determining these levels of the Long Zoom, which are essentially categories. But they’re arbitrary categories, and their relationship to one another is not scalar. Johnson is committing exactly the kind of fallacy that Weinberger rails against. Johnson needs to be careful of the seeming convenience of frameworks, or he’ll miss the truly interesting factors at play.

6 thoughts on “Steven Johnson has a Hammer

  1. Peter – can you expand more on why you don’t think Gladwell’s mavens, connectors and salespeople work?

  2. It’s been a while, Richard, since I read The Tipping Point, but I do remember not much agreeing with Gladwell’s thesis. My understanding of tipping point and critical mass phenomena is that they result when limited conditions become more general, even universal. There is a source of the Nile, but there would be no Nile without its tributaries. Which headwater gets credit as the tipping point? And what would the significance of that tributary be without the confluence of the other streams?

    Gladwell likes to engage in intellectual model building. In order to form an entertaining theory he elevates mavens, salesmen and connectors (whatever that means) from incidental role players in any developing drama to its essential creators.

    Years ago I learned to be both appreciative and leary of The Power of the Printed Word and the Magic of the Silver Screen. Gladwell is a more seductive writer than sensible.

    I am currently reading an excellent book titled POLIO by David M. Oshinsky. For several decades before the 1950s, polio was a greater scourge in America than Aids has since become. Suddenly in the 1960s the terrible scourge was no more. Not cured, eliminated. I am well into the book, and we all know how it ends, but Oshinsky reveals many efforts at work to combat polio. In a drama with so many tipping points, who clould possibly think that any one maven, salesman or connector needs to be singled out.

    Actually, my personal favorite tipping point is a number. I don’t recall the exact number but it is in the 40% to 50% range. It is the number of American owned dogs who, when vaccinated against rabies, virtually eliminates that disease in our dog population.

    What I like about Gladwell is that he is his own tipping point. He uses a cute catch phrase here and there to neatly confound enough casual readers into making him a Best Selling Author. Honestly, I am amused.

  3. My dad basically addressed it, but to answer your question, Richard: because it’s all anecdotal. Gladwell is a remarkable storyteller and a pretty shoddy theorist.

  4. Frameworks are useful, because they give us shared cognitive maps for communicating, solving problems, etc. Human beings are pattern-seeing creatures, and it’s how we’ve done things like create language and civilizations (for good or ill).
    But the ‘reification fallacy’ is chronic. We grab a nice framework and work it to death, thinking that, by god, we’ve finally gotten to the center of the damned onion.
    This is why books like Gladwell’s are so popular: they give people that scratched itch, that ersatz “aha” moment. I felt it at times in Tipping Point, but by the time I got to Blink I was kind of over the schtick. (I find his NYker articles much more fun to read — and less repetitive — but I’m less prone these days to letting them make me heady with gnosis.)
    But we can’t really get much done without patterns and frameworks, can we? Otherwise we just flounder.
    I suppose the important thing is to help further a new kind of literacy: for people to learn that a framework is useful in a particular context, but not universal. Not just hammers, then, but lots of tools in the toolbox.

  5. great comments, Peter. I’ll try to heed your advice and not abuse the hammer… :)

    I genuinely don’t think the long zoom approach is universally applicable; no doubt there are many situations where working within a single scale or discipline supplies all the answers you need. Your distinction about semantic forms is very suggestive — you may be right, I don’t really know.

    You didn’t mention the other example I gave, which of the approach at work in analyzing culture: the Sleeper Curve explanation of increasing complexity. I do think there’s lots of great work to be done thinking about cultural systems this way, moving basically from:

    neural systems
    individual humans (creators and audiences)
    social groups
    technological changes

    yes, markets and technological changes aren’t exactly different scales, but I think the movement between these different realms is still immensely valuable, and not done enough in cultural analysis, IMHO.

    you should also keep in mind that just because you write a book about a particular approach and focus on it throughout the book, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you think the approach is some kind of Unified Theory that can account for everything.

    but as I said in the talk, I’m still trying to figure it all out. looking forward to more of the conversation!


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