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.