The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Having decided to defer my review of Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days until I’ve read his other book in the same world/setting, River of Gods, I have decided to skip ahead and review the next book I read, a nonfiction piece by Steven Johnson.

This book was a loaner from my friend Charles, who recommended it highly to me. If I remember right, he picked it up at The Strand, which is one of the most wonderful bookstores I’ve ever visited… so much so that I even got a T-shirt when I was there. Maybe that doesn’t interest readers, but I find myself ever so slightly interested in how books come into people’s hands, and so on. Anyway, on to the book.


If you’ve read Patrick Süskind’s Das Parfum – Die Geschichte eines Mörders, or as we in the English-speaking world know it, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, then the description of London of a premodern metropolis that Johnson offers in the first few chapters will not strike you as wholly alien. In short, it was a filthy mess, a horror, and the place stank to high heaven, in a way few of us can imagine or understand.

However, Johnson goes far beyond the stink, delving into how the economics of the city and how its poorest citizens  lived (some of them, indeed, earning their livings in the very filth as scavengers, picking rags from the dead, gathering “pure” (animal and human feces) to sell to tanners, and so on. He delves into the water supply,with vivid descriptions of exactly how foul it was for many of the citizens of London. Extremely vivid descriptions, including phrases like “skimming the filth off the top.” Which, when combined with the simple facts of cholera, such as that it simply could not become epidemic until such time as people began to consume one anothers’ feces on a regular basis, is enough to make one glad of not having been around to see the Victorian world.

(I must note that this section of the book is harrowing in itself, but much more harrowing when staying in a poor suburb of a major city in a developing country. As I read the discussion of the water supply, I could not help but shudder, as I was bathing daily in water that could not be safely used even to brush one’s teeth.)

But the book is, for all this, not there for the mere thrill of an extreme gross-out. In Das Parfum it is necessary to set the stage for an utterly vampiric monster of scent, but in The Ghost Map, there is a deeper reason for the descriptions. All of this is necessary stage-setting for a discussion of cholera, the disease which festers at the heart of Johnson’s story. For the book is, most fundamentally, about an astoundingly deadly outbreak of cholera in a specific neighborhood of London, and about two men who sought to move beyond the pseudoscientific theories of the day to uncover and explain the real causes of that particular outbreak and its unusual severity. The two men in question are an unlikely pair: the first (and a very prominent) anaesthesiologist named Dr. John Snow, and the Reverend Henry Whitehead, a churchman who was the local preacher in the area struck.

The book tells the story of each of these men, to some degree, just as it tells the story of London at the time, and the story of cholera — but also, the story of how human beings began to figure out what epidemics were and how they worked. Though Snow and Whitehead’s evidence and conclusions were ignored by the medical and scientific establishment of their day, it took not long at all before their findings had not only been vindicated, but also served as part of the impetus for what Johnson calls “one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the nineteenth century: a system of sewer lines that would carry both waste and surface water to the east, away from Central London” (207).

The main impetus for the building of that sewer, it must however be noted, as a specially bad stink from the Thames during the summer of 1858. This is significant not just as a clarification, but because it served as a dramatic evidence against the pseudoscience claims of a group of theorists who Johnson calls “the miasmatists.” Now, for those of us who were lucky enough to be born and grow up after the ascendance of the germ theory of disease, it’s hard to imagine, but in the absence of that notion, the causes for disease were far from clear. If you can think up a loony theory, chances are someone else did, back in the Victorian Age. But the prominent theory was that of the miasmatists, which was, in short, that bad air (the presence of which was often indicated by bad odours) the underlying cause of sicknesses.

Now, miasmatist thinking isn’t completely idiotic, if you (a) forget everything we know about germs, and (b) look at the effects of bad smells on people. A stink can make someone feel ill, or vomit. A stink often shrouds food that has gone bad, and which, ingested, will make a person ill — so profoundly that stinks repel us. Johnson covers this evolutionary angle nicely, though this part of the book was far from news for me. (It’s covered in lots of books.) There’s also the bias against cities as foul and polluted, for such stinks would not, one realizes, be observed in the countryside. (The smell of cow shit is one thing; the smell of the shit of a million humans concentrated into a tiny area is quite another.) And then there was the fact that cholera outbreaks, for example, were mostly limited to urban areas. Cities were, indeed, death-mills, chewing up rural migrants and spitting out… well, all sorts of things: products, art, literature, and also huge numebrs of human bodies, as often as not killed off by disease outbreaks.

And what is a wonder — to us, who know too much to understand why — is how it took so very long for anyone to have the slightest real inkling of why this was the case. In its discussion of cholera, and of the scientific establishment’s inability to understand its causes, and how Whitehead and Snow changed all of that, the book is a marvel, something akin to detective novels, and indeed something akin to science fiction, but for a world in which we know all the science, and the characters do not.

In that vein, Snow and Whitehead alike are, to the modern reader, both unlikely heroes, which to my mind suggests we perhaps ought to stop and think about what kind of world we have made for ourselves. For all that people like Johnson (in his Conclusion and Epilogue to The Ghost Map) and Clay Shirky argue that what we’re getting with social networking is, in effect, a kind of world of unlikely heroes, where the spontaneous distribution and contribution of data allow for a kind of hyper-accelerated development of knowledge, but also can allow for a kind of hyper-specialized response to real world problems, I’m skeptical. When I look at the Internet, for example, I find something rather akin to Snow and Whitehead’s London, with its miasmatists.

To turn to an example related to current events in Korea: the film The Fourth Kind was recently released in theaters here. The fact of the matter is that the film is quite obviously fiction. Yet when I had a student confess, in class, that she thought it was all real, and that she had changed her thinking about aliens (and another agreed with her), I asked them whether they had researched the background of the film at all, to see if the “real-life” events described therein had even an iota of basis in fact. Not content just to mythbust in class, I turned online to see whether much had been written anywhere at all on the subject.

What I found, in fact, was a dialog that was far from meticulously researched or intelligently argued. Of course, the reasons for this are clear: those who “believe in” the film do so because they simply choose to believe, because they are credulous, because no evidence is needed on their part — and because when contrary evidence is presented, they tend to dismiss it angrily, just as the miasmatists did alternative theories of how cholera worked. Likewise, a look at the film’s website provides a plethora of links… not to any events in the ostensible “fact” on which the movie is based, mind, but related to all kinds of loony, shall I say ultimately miasmatist-like (as well as miasmatic), writing on UFOs and aliens and such.

On the other hand, the people who do know better, who could smell fakery a mile away, or from a brief glance at the film’s trailer, have tended mostly to post very briefly, to post with derision. It’s difficult to link to an absence of evidence, of course. The fact that some unsolved disappearances around Nome (primarily of native men, rather than white women’s children as in the movie) were investigated by the FBI, and the fact that many other disappearances were solved, and found to be caused by alcohol or foul play, is unlikely to dissuade the True Believers, just as Snow and Whitehead’s conclusions — and even the remarkable success of germ theory, for a while — failed to convince the miasmatists. And even though there are ample links that show the film was faked –like this section of the Wikipedia entry on the movie — people who want to believe are not going to click the links. Or, like transubstantiationists today, they will take refuge in the fact that while the literal claim is untrue, there is a “deeper truth” hidden in the lies, a message.

This comment on a post debunking the film is indicative of the sort of reaction I’m talking about: sure, the footage is faked, but there are “big mysteries” about the Mayans and the Sumerians which we can’t understand, and which must obviously point to a big conspiracy, the existence of aliens, or invisible pink unicorns who are omnipotently protecting us from the miasmatic intestinal gaseous emissions of malevolent green winged monkeys, if only the establishment would stop us from seeing it. The rabbit’s-hole world of loony, for-profit, bogus “research” is, unfortunately, too profitable for this noxious plague to go away. Indeed, this phenomenon raises questions of whether social networking won’t turn out to be a massive ill for us.

What I mean to ask is this: while Johnson is undoubtedly correct that this new social media infrastructure we have is really a democratization of the very mapping techniques used by Snow and Whitehead to illustrate the Broad Street epidemic, is it really credible that such a democratization will lead to anything better than a massive distribution of mapping techniques would have been in London in 1854? After all, Snow’s map very clearly did indicate that the cholera outbreak was directly related to the Broad Street Pump, but one can be absolutely certain that, given the same tools, any number of miasmatists could have produced maps with bogus “explanations” for the region was especially subject to excessively miasmatic conditions at the time of the outbreak. Had the miasmatists access to Google Maps, one wonders, might they not have effectively set back the investigation even further?

Surely, a vast number of “miasmatic maps” would have been churned out, something like, perhaps, the use of Google Earth to map “UFO sightings.” (And while, yes, UFO only means “Unidentified Flying Object,” a glance at the comments section suggests that this meaning has been lost, and many of those attracted to such discussions actually believe that UFOs, or some of them, are alien spacecraft, period. All sorts of more credible explanations, such as, say, experimental craft or photographic distortion or people being wackos seems easy to dismiss, once you “believe” in alien visitors to Earth.)

I have no doubt that in many ways, applications like Google Maps not only are useful now, but will become exponentially more useful as time goes by. I have no doubt that for certain kinds of knowledge, social networking cannot be beat. But I have sincere doubts, which Johnson’s account does not dispel, about how social networking might help us to deal with a problem like the one Londoners faced — not just in the form of cholera, but also in the form of the miasmatic theory of disease, which prevented most people from looking at cholera in such as way as to actually see its behaviour.

Not that Johnson is arguing that the mapping itself was the key. I don’t mean to misrepresent his argument, for he goes to great pains to show that what set Snow and Whitehead apart was their intimate knowledge of the area. Whitehead, especially, who began skeptical of Snow’s conclusions, but was swayed by the evidence, seems importantly unlike the officials in the London of their day: not only did those officials lack any real interest in Broad Street and its people–they also lacked a wealth of local information that, it turns out, made all the difference.

But the information had to be procured by people who saw beyond the scope of the paradigm of the day. Snow (and later Whitehead) were able to collect useful information based on their theories — information that the local people would otherwise have been unlikely to offer up, and which the establishment officials would have been unlikely to gather.

This is why I think that the unlikeliness of Snow and Whitehead as heroes — to us, as well as to the Victorian establishment — is worth a moment’s thought. Like a certain patent clerk in Switzerland, like a certain English occultist and theologian, Snow and Whitehead were not the people we might have expected to change the world. They discovered what they did through painstaking work, research, and by spending time alone with numbers, data, and details. In our world, many of even the brightest seem much more prone to slapping together arguments for or against something… and those who are trained to spend time alone with numbers, data, and details have to publish or perish, have primarily to research things that will make money, and so on.

I am not an expert on education, or on the formation of intellectual life in London during the Victorian era. I do not know whether whatever education system men like Snow and Whitehead went through had something to do with their rigour and discipline, or whether this characteristic arose from some specific trait in their nature or upbringing. But it does seem to me of crucial importance that such individuals, or potential individuals, need to be nurtured in our society. It is not because of their genius but because of their inquisitiveness, their patience and concern for the demonstrable, that they made all the difference. While it gives one perhaps a little hope to recognize that pseudoscience and nonsense (like that being forced into American textbooks en masse by the Texas Board of Education) may not completely drown out the potential paradigm-shifters and rationalists of our own era — Snow and Whitehead faced much more ridiculousness in the public discourse and among officials, as well, one presumes, in their own educations and upbringings, and had much less contrary evidence and information available to them as adults — one cannot help but wonder whether the discipline and commitment needed to overcome such brainwashing might also be something we (as a society) have begun to inculcate in the minds of our students today.

Of course, one could also argue that, for their day, Whitehead and Snow were sees as among the whackaloons, not the serious and disciplined people studying epidemics. The reality is more complex: there were a large number of whackaloons in the establishment, and the very unregulated nature of the knowledge economy of the day was such that many of the benefits we claim to see in modern free market capitalism were at play: competition rewarding quality of ideas, most especially. But however many whackaloons Whitehead and Snow were competing against in the economy of ideas, publishing was at least somewhat less easily achieved than it is today online; and there were, it must be remembered, far fewer whackaloons around, simply because of the scale of population growth that has occurred since.

I’m not sure that I’m particularly arguing anything about genius, about prodigies, here, though Einstein and Newton were indeed prodigies who, despite all kinds of ideas we pay less attention to today (alchemy in Newton’s case, music in Einstein’s) thought and worked in ways that revolutionized the sciences in which they were working. I think what I’m arguing is that what has changed is the medium for which the transmission of noise and signal alike has developed. This, it seems to me, is why Johnson’s focus on Snow’s revised map is interesting and problematic at once. His discussion, in this context, of why urbanization may decline is interesting. His comparison of Snow’s map to social networking sites is interesting too.

But I also have to admit that it feels a bit tacked-on, coming up primarily after the main narrative of Snow and Whitehead is complete. While the map’s story is, in itself, interesting, one cannot help but feel that Johnson is using it to shoehorn his hopefulness about social networking and new internet media into the book. Not gullibly, mind: he admits that, for example, social networking software likely cannot stop a suicide bomber’s attack, and cannot make us “listen to science and not superstition” (as he argues near the end of the book we need to do). One wants, deeply, to agree that our world’s problems are solvable. One finds little online, however, to indicatethat any form of nascent collective genius is on the cusp of being harnessed. Rather, what we have is the world’s largest and most accessible version of the Broad Street Pump, spreading not cholera, but rather batshit memes. Memes that have, by now, come to infest the minds of the world to a frightening degree.

And this is one of the questions I’m left to think over, after having finished the book (which I did weeks ago, before leaving Jakarta). Must one simply conclude that the virulently credulous, like the poor, shall always be among us? Is there a way to institutionalize a sort of triage of ideas, splitting those that have been satisfactorily demonstrated such that in the absence of competing evidence, we can assume them “true”, from those that either are possibly loony but deserve investigation, and finally those that have been shown, through either counterevidence, previous investigation, or analysis of the genealogy of the idea itself, to be bogus? (For example, the silly and false notion of the Sumerians knowing about all of the planets including a few we don’t know about, an idea that apparently traces back to soundly-criticized “ancient-astronauts” author Zechariah Sitchin.)

For all of that, perhaps Johnson may be right that social networking –now, we must admit, in its infancy — may turn out to have an incredible effect, once its systems are considered and learned from among specialists, and if they do not restrict the economy of ideas within their fields to the contributions of established experts.

And while I have spent a great deal of time picking at what I feel is a kind of hole in the end of the book, I must also add that I was completely captured by the narrative that makes up the book. Not only are Snow and Whitehead fascinating characters, but Johnson presents them and the other to major characters in the narrative — cholera, and the city of London itself — in ways that make the book difficult to criticize, and indeed difficult to put down. I recommend it highly.

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