Steven Johnson’s talk, “The Urban Web,” at Yale

I’m listening to Steven Johnson talk about his new book The Ghost Map. It’s the first time he’s discussed it publicly. In this talk, he’s tying this work to Emergence.

Steven starts by talking about the John Snow map — if you’ve read Tufte, you’ve probably encountered it — the map of the 1854 cholera epidemic in Soho, London. But the primary tenets you’ve heard are false: Snow’s map didn’t solve the problem, it was instead Whitehead (I blanked on his first name) who had the local knowledge and the intimacy with people in the neighborhood. Snow and Whitehead were both amateurs and locals. This is the strength of the situation.
He then breaks down this mechanism into three functions: local knowledge, the swerve, and pattern recognition. For those familiar with webness, there are few surprises here. As an example of local knowledge, he talks about the blog boom (25 million blogs, compared to very few a mere two years ago)… and also, 311 in New York. The swerve is the serendipitous stroke, whether you’re in Jane Jacobs’ Greenwich Village or following a link on a blog. And finally, pattern recgnition: Google making relevance of all the possible search results. How do these translate back to the city? Steven asks. This, he sorts into another three aspects: face-to-face (Meetup), streetblogging (neighborhood information), and geo-tagging (ala Google maps).
These things are not news to me… and it’s amusing to see this talk a few weeks after our panel at South by Southwest on online/offline place. It’s also good that this is going to hit the mainstream. It’s certainly good to be hitting a group of architects who probably aren’t terribly familiar with blogging — and for Steven, it’s good that it’s not an audience of bloggers and geeks. For us here at Yale, when we’ve brought Eric from Stamen here last week, and Anne Galloway this week, I’m hoping we can discover how this affects our design and research into the digitally connected, information-rich world.
My messy notes follow below.


the urban web – steven johnson
bridge between the ghost map and emergence… it’s about the cholera epidemic, 1854 in london. look at both meanings of the phrase: how web embraced values that make urban spaces innovative — and real world city interactions.
the version you know probably goes like this:
cholera outbreak decimates a london neighborhood w/in 5-6 days. the authorities think that it was transmitted through the air (wrong: it’s in the water). john snow builds a map of the deaths — each bar corresponds to a death.
he builds the map and the evidences points to a contaminated pump. the deaths radiate from a pump. he takes the map to the health authroities, they remove the pump handle on his suggestion, the epidemic ends, and water-born theory of cholera starts.
funny thing about the story: every aspect is wrong. snow suspected the pump before he made the map (after handle removed) — board of health rejected him outright. it was a triumph of info design and medical.
instead: triumph of a certain kind of urbanism, how it gets shared in a dense urban environment.
key to understanding = second detective: henry whitehead. curator of a local church. whitehead was more integrated in community, knew residents by name. wrote small pamphlet. pieced together trajectory of 1000 lives.
baby louis: index case — led authorities to this — cesspool at 40 broad street, decaying it. because of whitehead’s contributions, they believed it. 10 years later? they got around to snow.
shorthand version: settles on image of visionary scientist working alone discovering cause. but broad street isn’t a triumph of rogue science but engaged amateurism. whitehead: amateur par excellence. open and probling mind, thick-brained, intimate knowledge of the community. patterns of lives and deaths. conduit who made that possible. “he was a local — that was his great strength.”
jane jacobs. first point it becomes possible to conceive of metro city as a disease conqueror. detective work, pattern recognition —
the categories:
local knowledge = amateurs who are on the streets, on sidewalks, not big picture. talk to people with street wisdom that experts don’t have.
the swerve: captured by jacobs — the random encounter on the sidewalk. you have to walk from x to y and thus pass z and stumble upon sth not seen before — the swerve off into something unexpected.
pattern recognition: all the new forms of intelligence that are out there. project patterns onto a larger scale. collective wisdom out of urban centers.
map onto things closely now happening on webs.
WEBLOGS:
local weblogs — have doubled every 5 months, now 25 million blogs out there. around 1995 — was supposed to be a great form! but some doubted this. blog success show if you give people tools to talk about own experiences and local knowledge, it will be huge.
this is the world of the amateurs.
the swerve: the link that the blog offers up that takes you where you weren’t expecting to know — crazy things they’ve stumbled across.
(shows boingboing and its wacky stories. massive hit in the blogging world. they like to have the swerve that they couldn’t get before. )
pattern recognition: begins and ends in google. lots of people named john snow. how did google decide which john snows were most important? in early days of web, librarians would surf and decide this. or would say, here are 4 million pages.
google’s approach — and secret to their success — was not to solve problem from above but to do it below. outsource problem of relevancy to entire population on the web. a link from another page to another page = an endorsement of the page. looks at all john snow pages and figures which is most linked to. bottom up. broader aggregate powers and patterns.
tendencies are alive in the blogosphere and on google. but how can they be translated back to real world cities?
HOW TRANSLATE BACK TO CITY?
face to face: use web to augment face to face encounters. people use connective power of web to augment their f2f encounters (in urban environments).
meetup.com: use web to get together in physical space. all the vampire meetup groups worldwide.
#1 group on meetup= stay at home moms, then witches. this is a classic case of modern, hypertextual web-based technology. jane jacobs: talks about big cities are friendly to small groups and small interests. can sustain niche as towns can’t.
streetblogging: brownstoner.com. shared sensibiltiy: my part of brooklyn/park slope… restaurants, livable streets … take local knowledge or identify a problem — all those issues have an outlet
GMAP. give google coordinates. address, every web page — go to that page — universal locators. now: doing in geographic space what originally doing with information space. –>GEOTAGGING — google lets you do this nicely. plants real estate listings on map.
google map mashups — playgrounds or schools, hotspots, blogger locations. only recently possible, not before 2 years ago. moving through a city on your portable device: show me all the recent blog posts that emanate from within 15 minutes of here right now.
311: information concierge in the city. Call anything about city services, low-intensity alternative to 911. city gets all this local expertise and is being mapped, cataloged and inventories. #1 complaint was noise problems. bloomberg made a big part of second part of first term. starting to play with what they give back to residents. you can make a google map out of it.
night of blackout: city had plans for blackouts. but calls from people about insulin — how long would it last without power? how long is it good for? go to hospital? 100s of these calls. extra layer of feedback cameup to top. in first radio press conference, he released the information. street level to top made it because of feedback.
“big cities are the leftover baggage of the industrial age.” — george gilder … this is definitely in the annals of being wrong in the last 10 years. [what does that nostalgia mean?] downtown sf: destructively successful. density gets enhanced by these technologies bc tap into local wisdom, let people share knowledge.
snow and whitehead, 150 years ago didn’t have the tech but would have appreciated the sentiment.

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