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December 2006

Consilience

The Ghost Map: Steven Johnson and Brian Eno, 4 December 2006

In 1854 a cholera epidemic killed 50,000 people in England and Wales and become a battle between man and microbe unlike any other. At the ICA, Steven Johnson - author of Everything Bad is Good for You - will tell the story of Dr John Snow, the physician who pounded the streets of London, methodically noting the patterns in the outbreak. The conclusion he came to brought him into conflict with the entire medical establishment, but ultimately enabled him to defeat his era's greatest killer. In conversation with Brian Eno - musician, artist and co-founder of the Long Now Foundation - Johnson will explore what a cholera outbreak in the nineteenth century can tell us about solving the long term challenges we face in the twenty-first century.

Produced in collaboration with The Long Now Foundation.

Click to open on Flickr
Joe Lee's great photo of Steven Johnson and Brian Eno at the ICA

In the busy weeks since the 4th, I've returned many times to this evening — there was plenty to feed off: 'They started off talking about The Ghost Map but the conversation spread its tentacles to include Second Life, neighbourhoods, modern renaissance and slums' (Paul Miller). Once again, I was left wondering why university wasn't (isn't?) this exciting (inter-disciplinary, open to imaginative combinations of ideas) — something I afterwards put to both Steven Johnson and Brian Eno. Each said they often ask the same question (with an important qualification from Eno about his experience of art school).

For anyone who hasn't yet got to the write-ups, Matt blogged it there and then, and see also: Russell Davies; Rod McLaren ; Paul Miller (see above); Sebastian Mary; photos (= more by Joe Lee). Oh, and Steven Johnson

Afterwards, it was a great pleasure to catch up with Matt, Fiona, Dan and Rod, and to meet up with Tom again (last time was Reboot 8). 

***

The first manifestation of the Long Now Foundation in the UK, the evening unfolded in the context of the Foundation's wider work and thinking. I've been dipping into the Long Now seminars for a while and want to watch a number of the other videoed talks available there. Stewart Brand's views on city life were mentioned by Eno and Brand's City Planet seminar is one I'd seen before the ICA evening. I remember being brought up short by Brand's characterisation of city/rural life. In the Long Now discussion page about this talk, Craig Hubley writes: 

… he betrays a strong pro-urban bias by saying "In reality, life in the country is dull, backbreaking, impoverished, restricted, exposed, and dangerous. ... What's particularly odd is that Stewart follows this up by admitting how truly "impoverished, restricted, exposed, and dangerous" city life can be: "One-sixth of humanity, a billion people, now live in squatter cities ("slums") and millions more are on the way." Perhaps that's because the propaganda is telling them that "the city is exciting, less grueling, better paid, free, private, and safe." And it's that very propaganda that makes it not so. This can be particularly tragic for women who believe that "in the village, all there is for a woman is to obey her husband and family elder, pound grain, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children. Her independence goes up" unless of course she is exploited, enslaved, gets HIV while in prostitution. Why would she? Oh because she and her parents believe the fantasy myth about life in the city being necessarily better, of course.

Matt's notes from the evening catch the range of optimistic/positive things Johnson and Eno had to say about cities, but it was no surprise that in the Q&As slums figured prominently (Rod: 'some frisky questioning from the floor on first-world/middle-class elites vs developing-world/favelas, dismissed by Eno as an over-simplification'): are cities and their opportunities being talked up? Isn't the truth that thousands are being driven to the cities (slums) not out of choice but by mass privatisation of rural land? 

Peter Merholz, whilst travelling in Chile and Peru, has been reading Johnson's book, The Ghost Map, the originating focus for the ICA event. He describes himself as 'a fan of cities', but 'it's clear that we have to … consider the development of the modern megalopolis highly critically': 

Another thing I read while traveling was a recent New Yorker article on Lagos, Nigeria, which the author depicts as something akin to hell on earth. The author juxtaposes his (miserable) experiences with breathless commentary from folks such as Rem Koolhaas, demonstrating the disconnection from reality that urbanist cheerleaders suffer.

Because when you look at Lagos, or when I looked at Lima, I really had to wonder: are such cities a good thing? Lima is a city built on fear. It's grown phenomenally in the last half century and, in doing so, has seen a marked increase in crime, brought upon by the economic disparity within the citizenry. Everywhere you go, you see armed guards. Boring middle class apartment buildings are ringed with electrified fences. In public places, chairs have straps to latch your purse. This all comprises a literal architecture of fear. …

The growth of cities in the 20th century make their development feel inevitable, and cities are clearly the world's primary economic engine, but when that inevitability makes people feel like they're trapped in circumstance, what have we achieved?

In my notes from the ICA event, I have the titles of two books I want to read soon that take contrary views about mega-cities: Shadow Cities (Robert Neuwirth) and Planet of Slums (Mike Davis). (Eno also suggested Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts' novel about Mumbai.) 

Nineteenth century doomsayers predicted the collapse of London (then, with a population of some 2.5 million, the largest city on earth) and its survival as a much smaller entity. The nineteenth century worked out how to maintain cities of a few million and so, today, we see cities of 1-10 million as viable. Cities of 25 million are what we worry about. 

Some time in 2007, and for the first time in human history, more than 50% of the world's peoples will live in cities. For this new phase of human life, and for one of its key features, the megalopolis, what are the problems we need to address and how are these to be solved? 

***

Through all of the evening, there ran something else. When I got to speak briefly to Johnson after the talk, I asked him what he thought united his seemingly disparate books (Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, 1997; Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, 2001; Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, 2004; Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, 2005; The Ghost Map, 2006). His answer —  a long-term interest in consilience. 

The OED entry for consilience (for its etymology, see consilient: from the Latin, 'consilire, con- together + salire to leap'):

The fact of ‘jumping together’ or agreeing; coincidence, concurrence; said of the accordance of two or more inductions drawn from different groups of phenomena.

1840 WHEWELL Philos. Induct. Sc. II. 230 Accordingly the cases in which inductions from classes of facts altogether different have thus jumped together, belong only to the best established theories which the history of science contains. And, as I shall have occasion to refer to this particular feature in their evidence, I will take the liberty of describing it by a particular phrase; and will term it the Consilience of Inductions. 1847 {emem} Hist. Induct. Sc. II. 582 Such coincidences, or consiliences..are the test of truth. 1861 MILL Utilit. 94 The consilience of the results of both these processes, each corroborating and verifying the other.

Wikipedia has two entries about consilience, one on E O Wilson's book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, and one on the term itself, with several quotations from Wilson's book - eg,

If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized. Even the attempt to accomplish that much is a worthwhile goal. Profession-bent students should be helped to understand that in the twenty-first century the world will not be run by those [who] possess mere information alone. Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

Back in August, Steven Johnson spoke with Jesse James Garrett:

JJG: Back when you were running FEED, you seemed to be most interested in cultural criticism, but since then your work has taken a sharp turn into science journalism. What prompted this transition, and what do you see as the connection between these areas of interest?

SJ: The first step was that I looked up at my bookshelf one day and realized that the last 15 books I’d read had been science books. So I thought: if this is what I want to read, maybe it’s what I should write. And then I read E.O. Wilson’s Consilience and thought: I love every bit of this except for the part where he talks about culture. I thought: it would be nice to have someone who came out of a culture crit background who was genuinely building bridges to the science, and not deconstructing it. And really, ever since then, that’s what all my books have been trying to do, in their different ways — to write about culture in ways that are genuinely open to the insights of science, where they’re appropriate.

Ferdinand Mount reviewed The Ghost Map for the WSJ (reprinted on the UCLA Department of Epidemiology website):

Snow had the precious gift of consilience -- "jumping together" … That is, he could bring side by side techniques or theories from two different disciplines to make a further leap forward.

Inductions drawn from 'different groups of phenomena', 'different disciplines' … different scales. Matt:

SJ: Snow was what you might call ‘a consilient thinker’ - he was looking at things on a number of different scales. He built a theory that worked on the very small and the very large scale at the same time.

And here's Russell Davies:

Steven Johnson talked about John Snow as a typical Victorian amateur dabbler. Which struck a chord with me. It's another definition of the creative generalist. Someone who's interested in all sorts of things, the arts and the science. And he talked about the idea of consilience and how John Snow was able to think at all sorts of different scales about the problem of cholera - the microbial one (sort of, they couldn't really see germs then), the human one (he was trained as a physician) and the societal one (he could see and understand the effects on the city as a whole).

Steven Johnson:

In many ways, the story of Broad Street is all about the triumph of a certain kind of urbanism in the face of great adversity, the power of dense cities to create solutions to problems that they themselves have brought about. So many of the issues that define the modern world today -- the runaway growth of megacities, environmental crises, fears of apocalyptic epidemics, digital mapping, the need for clean water, urban terror, the rise of amateur expertise -- are there, in embryo, in the Broad Street outbreak.

So The Ghost Map is in part a disease thriller, with some genuinely spooky and unsettling narrative turns. But it also widens its focus to tell the history of London's sewer system, the evolutionary history of bacteria, the biological and cultural roots of the miasma theory, the bizarre waste management techniques of Victorian society, and so on. It is the story of ten days in London in 1854, but it's also an attempt to tell that story at three different scales of experience: from the point of view of the humans living through it, but also from the point of view of the cholera itself, and the city.

***

I'm reading Johnson's book now. Next in line is Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. I see that Jenkins, in his concluding chapter, talking about how 'many schools remain openly hostile' to the kinds of new knowledge cultures he's exploring, writes that schools are 'continuing to promote autonomous problem solvers and self-contained learners'.

Consilience is about breaking down boundaries between disciplines,

Most of the issues that vex humanity daily - ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty, to cite several most consistently before us - cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is … (E O Wilson)

but it's also about breaking down barriers between learners. Consilience and open, collaborative knowledge cultures are tightly intertwined. Steven Johnson, in The Ghost Map (pp225-6):

... the lateral, cross-disciplinary flow of ideas. The public spaces and coffeehouses of classic urban centers are not organized into strict zones of expertise and interest, the way most universities or corporations are. They're places where various professions intermingle, where different people swap stories and ideas and skills along the way. Snow himself was a kind of one-man coffehouse: one of the primary reasons he was able to cut through the fog of miasma was his multidisciplinary approach, as a practising physician, mapmaker, inventor, chemist, demographer and medical detective. But even with that polymath background, he still needed to draw upon an entirely different set of skills — more social than intellectual — in the form of Henry Whitehead's local knowledge.

JP:

... with consilience amongst professions, we will learn even more. Man was born to bond, to act in community. To be altruistic. To make sacrifices for his family and friends. To belong.

***

Looking back over this year, consilience seems to have been the name of the trail I didn't realise I was following. I want to put that together with play. At the end of the ICA Johnson/Eno evening, talking with Matt about IT portal-keepers and the familiar cries of 'thou shalt not', I said something (obvious) about how we should be trying to create space in which users can join the bits in ways they discover have value. Matt said something (to my mind much better) along the lines of letting (the) play go on. Yes: let the game play on.

Here's to a thoroughly consilient 2007.


Eugh ...

Crazy fortnight of the usual end of term stuff … the kind of weeks a lot of teachers go through round about now, their schools entering states of extravagant levels of activity: invigilating, marking coursework, marking exams, writing reports. (Come back Andrew Pinder, all's forgiven - this is a very inefficient "industry".) 

Then, moving. Surreal sense of time blurred all together, days melding into nights into days. So when a friend emails me with this from our leader

Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don't come here.

… I find I'm coming to, like the morning after, my head aching with the realisation that this is yet another example of a politician out-satirising satirists. Then John Naughton posts: 

Sometimes, one has to rub one’s eyes in disbelief. Yesterday, a Labour Prime Minister was interviewed by detectives investigating a corruption scandal engulfing his administration — and it was judged a triumph by his staff that he wasn’t cautioned. This meant he was ‘just’ a witness, and not a suspect in the inquiry. And at the same time, his government’s chief law officer halts an inquiry that was on the brink of revealing illegal payments of perhaps £1 billion to a posse of Saudi princelings and their hangers-on because they were (as the BBC’s Security correspondent intimated this morning) livid at the prospect of having their ‘privacy’ invaded.

Eugh indeed. Inglorious times.

Somewhere in this gap of time, I spent about a week saying 'plutonium' when I meant 'polonium'. (In David Weinberger's great phrase, 'I have become all cracks, no flooring'.) Bless the internet for underscoring so readily why it's important to tell the difference.

And then, the afternoon of my move out of Radley and back to Marlborough (prelude to a move to London in the new year), my laptop's fan, origin of strange noises for a while now, packed up and the machine became, of course, unbootable: 'Fan Error'. You bet. The next day was spent lost in Reading's seemingly all-look-alike roads: Lenovo has this relationship with TNT and Reading's my nearest, relevant TNT drop-off point. Sheesh.

I get by at times like these by borrowing family machines. My wife's laptop will go back to her with various bells and whistles installed. (That's my bargaining ploy for the extensive use of her machine.) Thomas' woes are of another order, though:

I am currently limping along on an external hard drive for my laptop with the last good back up from two months ago. I am missing notes from the last few conferences and my kGTD, which I just got running well.

I do sympathise. What do we need so as to make all this business of machine-hopping and machine-breakdown bearable or better? Thomas again:

Many people are trying to sync and back-up their lives on a regular basis, but the technology is still faulty. So many people have faulty syncing, no matter what technologies they are using. Most people have more than two devices in their life (work and home computer, smart phone, PDA, mobile phone with syncable address book and calendar, iPod, and other assorted options) and the syncing still works best (often passably) between two devices. Now when we start including web services things get really messy as people try to work on-line and off-line across their devices. The technology has not caught up as most devices are marketed and built to solve a problem between two devices and area of information need. The solutions are short sighted. …

Having trusted devices working together helps heal the fractures in our data losses, while keeping it safe from those we do not wish to have access. The secure transmission of our data between our trusted devices and securely shared with those we trust is quickly arriving.

I am hoping the next time I have a fatal hard drive crash it is not noticeable and the data loss is self-healed by pulling things back together from resources I have trust (well placed trust that is verifiable - hopefully). This is the Personal InfoCloud and its dealing with a Local InfoCloud all securely built with trusted components.

*** 

Having said which, and bearing in mind that, unlike Thomas, I'm not running my own business or attending multiple conferences, etc, etc, what has struck me this year, whenever I've lived temporarily without my own machine, is how well I can now get along. As Robert said just recently:

Google is delivering the Web goods and is taking over more and more of my life …

Hook another machine up to the web, and it's almost business as usual, plus or minus some favourite desktop shortcuts or bits of software.

And for me, it's also turning out that there are unexpected benefits to be had from these little hiatuses. (ThinkPads are supposed to be utterly reliable. No thing is utterly reliable. In nearly two years of owning it, this one's been back to Lenovo three times — once for a new motherboard.) To draw from Eng Lit a moment, Coleridge has this notebook entry:

The extenders of consciousness — Sorrow, Sickness, Poetry, Religion. The truth is, we stop in the sense of life just where we are not forced to go on.

Habit holds us back, holds us in — so much — in both big things and small, even in the lesser matters of software choice. I couldn't figure out how to get FeedDemon running from off of my own laptop's hard drive (running this as an external drive, talking to my wife's laptop's hard drive), so I switched to Google Reader using a not-very-recently-backed-up OPML file. And guess what? Google Reader is not only as great as people have said it is, I'm reading stuff faster in it than in FeedDemon because there are fewer options, fewer possible enrichments … fewer distractions. (Joel Spolsky: 'People, for the most part, are not playing with their software because they want to. They’re using the software as a tool to accomplish something else that they would like to do'. Good software should … disappear. I was so delighted to find an easy way to get Live Writer to run, on my borrowed laptop's drive but using my bank of draft posts from off of my own hard drive. Live Writer's a dream blogging tool: it disappears and lets you get on and do what you want to do.) I've been wanting for some time now to speed up my reading of feeds without (I hope) losing too much, so as to get back to reading more books alongside my online reading. This unlooked for nudge has broken me out of one habit and started me off on another which may give me some more time for offline reading. 

So Gmail, Google Apps, Google Calendar, YouTube, Google Video … and del.icio.us, Last.fm, Flickr …  (Not quite a Google flush — not by some way, in fact). And there's something magical about finding that all those settings that seemed like they were part of your desktop are, as you always knew they were but had ceased to experience them as being, out there — waiting for you to pick up and carry on as if nothing much had happened after all.

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Online/Office 2007

I've been using Office 2007 in beta for some while now and like it very much. Dan Saffer at Adaptive Path writes:

Office 2007 just might be the best interaction design to ever come out of Microsoft, and it’s certainly the most significant upgrade to a major suite of applications since, well, probably ever. … 1000 enhancements. They broke with convention when they had a better solution. They applied known interaction design principles and come up with some awesome results, including the minibar. They understood tasks and modeled them before designing. They fixed known issues that have been annoying people for years. In short, they took a set of products that have been an interaction design punching bag for years and rethought them. While I’m sure this is going to cause some serious redesign reorientation, the suite really looks and feels designed now. In a good way.

But, he adds, 'From a business sense, it’s unclear if all these upgrades might be too little, too late.'

Anil praised Office 2007 back here:

Short and sweet, the Ribbon and new UI in Microsoft Office 2007 is the ballsiest new feature in the history of computer software. I've been using Office 12 for about six months, and not only has it made me more productive, I'm struck by the sheer ambition of the changes in this version. … there have been very few bet-the-company style risks, and certainly none from companies as large as Microsoft. But Microsoft did it anyway. They killed the File menu, along with all the other menus. They added a giant, weird circular target up in the corner. They actually use part of the title bar as a menu sometimes. They even changed the default font in all the apps. What's amazing is not just that it works, but that it works so well.

My experience has been the same as most of those who I know that are using the new version: Word went from being frustrating and confusing to fairly straightforward to use. PowerPoint went, in a single upgrade, from being the worst widely-available presentation software to being the best. Excel is a fundamentally different kind of spreadsheet application, focused on presenting information usefully instead of optimizing for the creation of complex formulas.

I've posted about Google "Office" before (here and here). Now I see:

  • You can email documents into Google Docs & Spreadsheets (login and go here).

  • Google Spreadsheets now allow you to 'publish … in every imaginable format (HTML, PDF, XLS, ODS, CSV) or as a feed. What's great is that the file is automatically updated, so you'll be almost certain that someone gets the latest version. You can also publish all the sheets or only some of them. But the coolest thing you can do is to embed a spreadsheet into your blog or site … Google Spreadsheets shows you all the revisions of a spreadsheets, so it's easy to go back to an earlier version. And there are two new functions that use information from the web: GoogleFinance("symbol", "attribute") that returns information about a stock. GoogleFinance("GOOG", "price") returns the current price for GOOG; GoogleLookup("entity", "attribute") that returns answers to simple questions like: population of Italy, Jay Leno's date of birth, that usually appear at the top of search results in Google.com. GoogleLookup("Italy", "population") will return the population of Italy. Don't forget to place an equal in front of the function name.' Google Operating System

In other news:

We know that many of you are managing your tasks with Remember The Milk and your events with Google Calendar, and we thought it would be very cool if we could bring the two together. This new feature adds a small task icon to the top of each day in Google Calendar -- click on the icon to:

  • Review your tasks for the day
  • Add new tasks and edit existing ones
  • Easily complete and postpone tasks
  • Review your overdue tasks
  • Optionally show tasks with no due date
  • See where your tasks are located on a map
  • Google Reader is improving in leaps and bounds. The latest, via Lifehacker: 'Google Reader has updated their Feed actions drop-down menu with several super-handy actions that had been conspicuously missing in the first iteration of the new Google Reader, namely renaming of feeds and assigning feeds to a folder (all you could do for a while was unsubscribe).'

Web-apps (and not just Google's — see my earlier postings linked to above) are quickly becoming formidable. Whether Microsoft is, indeed, doing 'too little, too late' time, 'the final arbiter of all designs' (Dan Saffer), will tell, but all enterprises, businesses, schools must at least be pondering whether something as tempting as Office 2007 (for example) really is worth the upgrade price (and associated issues). Dan Saffer cites one CEO: 'To me, Office 2007 is a complete non-event. I have no interest in an upgrade … Most of what I like about computing now lives online.'