Matthew Power [1974-2014] was an award-winning freelance print and radio journalist and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine.

Q&A with Steven Johnson, author of The Ghost Map

GQ  |  December 2006

A lot of the new book deals with this cholera outbreak in Victorian London and the beginnings of epidemiology. What do you feel that that has to tell us about the world we live in today?
This week that most of the book is focused on, the ten days of this terrible epidemic, is crucial because it’s in some ways the beginning of the modern world, and we’re reenacting the things they were wrestling with today, in different parts of the world. Part of it is that London was going through something that no city and no culture in the world had ever done before, trying to cram 2.5 million people into 90 square miles without a modern infrastructure of waste management and public health. And because this particular episode turned out to be the turning point in solving the riddle of cholera, in some ways it’s a turning point in creating sustainable cities of millions of people. And now we’ve moved historically to this place where fifty percent of the planet now lives in metropolitan areas. From three percent in 1800 to around 50 percent in 2000. That’s ultimately the story of the 20th century in the long view; our transformation into a planet of city dwellers, which was in a large part made possible by the kind of understanding that came out of this epidemic.
About the protagonist of your book, you call him a polymath, he’s an expert or amateur on this whole host of disciplines from hard sciences to social sciences. Is that possible today?
I think there are two contradictory trends. Certainly there is an explosion of specialization. But we’ve also seen in the last ten years, thanks largely to the internet, this amazing rise in amateur expertise across a whole range of fields, everything from bloggers writing about politics to people writing entries for Wikipedia. So there’s a specialization inside the academy but a great kind of connectedness and productive amateurism in the online world.
The title of the book comes from the maps that the protagonist drew mapping the course of the cholera epidemic throughout his neighborhood. What we see today, thanks to the introduction of Google maps and other programs, is people making maps of their neighborhoods, annotating maps using local knowledge. It’s open source information sharing.
You compare 19th century cholera to modern terrorism as a sort of organism that exploits urban density to harm us, do you think if you extend that metaphor, there’s a cure for terrorism that’s not worse than the disease?
I think that’s the hundred trillion dollar question. Is there something that could happen, whether natural or manmade, that could undo this move towards a city planet? And it could be just another avian flu-like epidemic that would sweep through large urban areas and kill millions of people and would cause large groups of people to flee the cities because they were too dangerous. I think that’s unlikely but if we had consistent terrorist attacks that started to kill millions of people instead of thousands or hundreds, which we seem to have gotten used to, it could slow down that process of urbanization. What hasn’t happened yet, thank god, is something on the scale of a nuclear detonation in downtown New York, where you could easily have a million people die. So we haven’t seen something on that magnitude ever, even Hiroshima and Nagasaki we didn’t have that many people die. There’s reason for optimism. New York City has grown remarkably in population since 9/11. We all saw what happened to the real estate market after 9/11, when everyone thought people would be leaving the city. Cities have an incredible resilience, at least they do now.
So I heard that a lot of the same places that book you on the lecture circuit also tried to book Malcolm Gladwell. Do you think that the success of big-selling counterintuitive-idea writers like him has boosted your career?
Well it helped with “Everything Bad is Good for you” because that was more in that kind of genre than my other ones. Gladwell and I have a lot of shared interests, and I think we write in kind of similar ways, and he’s certainly been an influence on me. But this book is pretty different from his books, because it’s got a sustained narrative and there’s nothing contrarian about the basic thesis. It’s partly a book about cities, it’s partly a book about the evolution of bacteria, it’s partly a book a bout mapping, it’s partly a book about the history of ideas. “The Tipping Point” is like that in terms of jumping from discipline to discipline and following a common thread, and that’s been true of all my books.
It’s funny, this is the only book that I actually have any credentials to have written. Except for maybe “everything bad is good for you” which is really just the amount of time I spent watching television and playing video games. I did my grad work at Columbia in the 19th century novel.
At some point in the book you say that there’s a window of time, 20 years or so, after which we’ll be out of the woods with global threats like pandemics. Do you have that much faith in science?
I do believe at some point we’ll be very adept at identifying some rogue virus and rapidly building a prototype for some kind of prevention of it spreading. Look at avian flu, and we’ve had this unbelievable explosion of research and money being spent to prepare ourselves for a virus that doesn’t exist yet, as far as we know. There’s no known form that it’s been able to spread from human to human with ease.
Hence inoculating chicken farmers in Thailand.
We’re trying to make sure that this mutation doesn’t happen. The fact that we’ve gone in 150 years to not even being aware that there are such things as viruses and bacteria, to the point where today we’re saying “this virus is going to appear, even though it doesn’t exist yet” is a measure of how far we’ve come.

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