What Are We Going To Do With All This Sh*t?

Previously described in this post as a ‘birds’-eye view’ approach, Johnson’s style of writing enables him to examine the confluence of factors that led to the cholera outbreak of 1854. Johnson explains that, in the past, the spread of cholera was prevented by humans’ aversion to excrement ingestion and a lack of densely populated urban centres. However, amidst a growing population and their unsanitary waste disposal practises, 19th century London was the perfect breeding ground for V. cholerae.

By taking the ‘birds’-eye view’, The Ghost Map challenges the notion that crises are caused by individuals (be it people or events). Rather, it is the culmination of the unwitting side-effects of the actions of large groups of people living ordinary lives or trying to better those lives through, for example, the invention of water closets that improved waste disposal whilst simultaneously caused cesspools to overflow, that direct the arc of history.

Johnson frames the choice to continue living in the city after the outbreak as a “new form of collective human choice”, illustrating that each human has become a node in a newly formed network of information, labor, and ideas. This new form of choice was one where the collective’s needs took higher priority than the individual’s: “the city itself was best understood . . . greater than the sum of its parts” (91). Londoners were not in control of London; it had a life of its own. Collective behavior was not a collection of hundreds of individual, micro-scale human choices, but instead, was shaped by the macro-scale flow and direction of energy. Such a network also influenced how people perceived and understood ideas, such as the popular contagion and miasma theories. 

Yet in spite of their attempts to understand the causes of the cholera outbreak, individuals were often unable to view the city of London on a macro-scale or even on the micro-scale, with the microorganisms behind cholera. Thus, we see that history is littered with mistaken hypotheses and flawed understanding, as those trying to make sense of a deeply interconnected and interdependent world were often blind to the full extent of its complexity, constrained by their time.   

Johnson situates John Snow within a slowly dying Soho neighborhood and presents him as an underdog hero (an underdog due to his socioeconomic background). Snow, the “brilliant” son of a Yorkshire laborer, is presented as a highly qualified, high-achieving, and incredibly intelligent individual. His research and practice on pain management and anesthesia show his intelligence and passion for medical research, which explain his deep interest in cholera and in settling the debate between contagion and miasma theorists. Snow investigates the case thoroughly and postulates that cholera may come from something victims ingest, either through water, food, or waste matter. Several outbreaks in London, five years before the 1854 cholera outbreak, help support his case. In the 1854 outbreak, he thus begins investigating the water from the Broad Street pump — which, despite being completely clear, led to the deaths of individuals upon their consumption of it.

Johnson’s specificity in building his characters lends the book something that can be resonated with. By situating the outbreak specifically, at a certain time and space, the reader is able to create a world in their head, in a very detective-esque manner. The reader could create detective mind maps in their head, complete with push-pins and yarns connecting the characters and places together. The piece reads like a true crime narration, heightening the stakes of the text for the reader. The utilization of introspective investigative questions in the text invites the reader into the investigative mind of John Snow rather than keeping the reader a passive spectator, thus emphasizing the true crime-esque/detective novel genre of the book. 

Such specificity in character also showcased the fear that was a defining emotion of urban life in London. But with death as close as their next-door neighbor, why did people continue to live there? Johnson writes that the Victorian-era Londoners were acclimatized to death. For them, death was so normalized that terror “does not quite play the role that one might expect, given the body count” (87).

Beginning with “This is a story of four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men”, how does Johnson characterize London? How is his London different from Defoe’s? What role does Johnson’s London play?

Did the wide acceptance of the miasma theory hinder individuals in finding the right solution to the cholera outbreak? How do we distinguish between popular opinion and logical fact? 

If fear is a defining emotion of urban life – how does it define modern urban life? What have its effects been in times of disease and disaster?

As Johnson mentions, network externalities cause feedback loops. The network effect is usually described in economics, but how does it relate to the city and its citizens here? What about negative network externalities? The network effect can also create a bandwagon effect – how does that affect the city?


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  1. In my opinion, Johnson’s The Ghost Map is a staple of urban planning around the world and a profound influence of the way Europeans understood society and urban design. The cholera epidemic became a major epidemic disease in the 19th century. The European society witnessed transformations that contributed to the rise of the disease and unfortunately today we still witness cholera outbreaks. Some of the factors go back to old imperialism and trade as well as shipping networks and colonial relations which predict the spread of diseases around the world. I like the way you explained the “utilization of introspective investigative questions”, I think there are two approaches to the way the narrative is written which is through a dialectical and a technological approach. One of the main questions I ask here is what are the parameters of human agency and how vulnerable we are in expressing such issues? Johnson descriptions sets off the background picture for the readers, London had “two worlds, the dead and the living, [which] have begun to coexist in these marginal spaces [- the streets of London]”. The city itself improvised a response to which was considered a calamity of their time – the filthy city, by creating an underground market and an assembly line where different professions and positions were created to assemble the garbage that was collected and turn it into something else in order to decrease the amount of waste in the city. Johnson applauses this response (and I do too) because it was meant to decrease the human waste of two million people by creating an entire system of sorting and processing the waste and let’s not forget that they were underclass uneducated people. I think what Steven Johnson here did is important, before going on to the discussion of the epidemic and how disastrous it was, he acknowledges the procedures taken by the scavengers of London and praises the moral aspect of their action. Population density played a role in the spread of the cholera in London because the disease existed for thousands of years but the communities in ancient time weren’t as dense as they are today in cities, so it became a major issue such as the Black Death. The cure was just clean water but in Victorian London it was a struggle to find. According to Johnson, waste recycling was an ancient artistic response to one of the major human calamities on this planet and it played an important role in the growth of medieval European towns. Things like oxygen are a waste product for another living thing, the algae, but it turns to be the essential need for living for another creatures, us humans. Waste recycling, described as an artistic response, was a process accumulated for a certain need. This is similar to storytelling in Boccaccio. People were fleeing the plague and wanted to live their lives to the fullest, so they distracted themselves by storytelling, but we see it today just like Steven Johnson, as an artistic response to a calamity.

  2. Personally I agree with many of the arguments you mention here, especially the one about how the connection of apparently unrelated smaller events can lead to a historical event of this scale. It reminds me of the idea of the Butterfly effect present in chaos theory. Though famously mentioned by mathematicians and scientists like Edward Lorenz, the Butterfly effect can also apply to social situations like this one. Specifically, the Butterfly effect claims how a small localized change in a complex system can have larger effects elsewhere, like when a butterfly flaps its wings a certain direction which then causes a typhoon somewhere else. Through this bird’s eye view provided by Johnson, we get to see how “Patient Zero”, a baby who’s filthy diaper was disposed of in a cesspool, lead to the death of dozens in a matter of a few days. Indeed just a small act of throwing away a dirty diaper lead to a major outbreak of a deadly disease. If the baby’s mother hadn’t thrown away the diaper there, the diaper wouldn’t have contaminated the water and the cholera outbreak would probably have not happened. Hence, this in conjunction with other small but yet impactful events led to the faster spread of this disease. Then answering to the last question about network externalities, the miasma theory, and its subsequent bandwagon effect, could also be defined as part of the butterfly effect either as part of the series of small actions or as another butterfly effect event itself, as seen through how small actions and ideas lead to this theory of contagion gaining strength.

  3. The idea of fear being the, “defining emotion of urban life”, I believe, is tied to the “sociology of error” that Steven Johnson tracks in The Ghost Map. Johnson writes, often with exasperation, about how the establishment refused to consider the waterborne theory of cholera, even under mounting evidence. He illustrates this through numerous examples, like how miasma theory guided well-meaning public health officials to dump waste into the Thames, saying, “it was a kind of madness, the madness that comes from being under the spell of a Theory”, or how the Board of Health rejected Snow and Whitehead’s convincing report. I think the difficulty in removing a theory such as the miasmatic origins of cholera rises from the fear Johnson presents as an essential element to urban space.

    Why? Because theories are put forth to demystify the unknown. The unknown is uncontrollable and therefore fear-inducing. The miasma theorists, guided by their senses, created a framework for control, which would help understand one aspect of metropolitan life. It proved inadequate. Yet, it seemed better to hold on to the comfort of the known theory, which had networked its way through the establishment, rather than accept radical, destabilizing revisionism of what would become germ theory.

    In Johnson’s London, the largest city in the world, no one knew where the city of such scale could work. The running of everyday life was a constant process of learning on the fly. And people seemed to live in fear of death and decay. Faced with such existential insecurity, both individuals (or groups) and institutions clung to the past, which was comprehensible, unlike the urban mass, which is noted for the networks/flows that transcend the sum of its parts.

    Miasma was a way of understanding from the past. It rested on believing that our senses were adequate tools for understanding reality. It was a comforting means to stall the development of a new paradigm for living and understanding life that was emerging in London. It was one of the past’s last gasps. The future, of seemingly clean water – an essential element to life – being the medium of doom would eventually be accepted with the adoption of the scientific method and improved supersensory technologies such as microscopes. But at the point, it only added to the everyday fears that plagued London’s residents and authorities, of losing control. This is what led to the disastrous denial Snow and Whiteheads work – a sociology of error rooted

    • I wonder if it’s worth noting that miasma theory — in its emphasis on sensory perception — may have served useful purposes that get glossed over when we just think of it as a deeply rooted mistaken theory. For one, it emphasized sensory perception over supernaturalism. It also led to some public health measures that had beneficial effects even before cholera’s transmission was completely understood.

      I also want to note the ways in which Johnson’s discussions of sociology of error/fear tie back to Viralogy, and Sampson’s emphasis both on the transmission of affect and on the we’re-too-connected thesis he wants to resist. Johnson clearly sees the dangers of being too connected (as the epilogue bears out) but he also sees cities as facilitating creative exchange.

  4. I agree with a lot of what this post is saying about the book, however, I would argue that Johnson does not only use a “bird’s-eye view” when looking at the Cholera outbreak. Rather, I read a lot of what Johnson explores as taking a close-up view of very specific historical moments and themes, ex. he goes into a long explanation about how bacteria and V Cholerae specifically works. Rather than saying he takes only a bird’s-eye view, I would say that he zooms in and out of the whole picture of the event and what led to it. He does often ‘zoom out’, but also goes into incredible detail. If this book were a movie, I could see the camera zooming way out over London and maybe even the world, before it zooms in really fast again to focus in on an individual walking the streets, or even further onto the microscopic level, watching V Cholerae wriggling around in the water. That being said, I do agree with what the post says about Johnson making the book feel like a detective novel. The reader is really engaged the whole way through the streets of London, into the looking-back on homo sapiens, all the way through to the implications about the modern day that Johnson makes towards the end of the book. I found it particularly interesting when Johnson goes off about the miasma theory, explaining the biological reasoning behind the theory’s stubbornness in the minds of these Victorian Londoners. Also, the explanation of the city planning that took place in order to ‘save’ the city from drowning in their own shit, and how this led to the outbreak. The irony of the situation when is comes to the urban planners of Victorian London was interesting and kept the reader engaged in the drama, confusion, and narratives surrounding the event. The question of fear being a fact of modern urban life, I’m not sure how accurate that would be, I think it heavily depends on the city in which you live in. Even certain ‘safe’ cities have bad sides of town which people avoid. As mentioned in the book, terrorism adds fear to city dwellers, but even this I would say does not perpetuate across many years, for example, after 9-11, people were really scared in cities, but now, I’d say that terrorism isn’t a huge fear factor in city living in the US anymore. Of course you could say this about many cities, and then something happens, and then fear spikes. These questions at a global level are difficult to create single answers to, maybe that’s why johnson’s book is about such a specific time and place in history, but then is the story it weaves useful to alternative moments? Guess it depends. There is a whole core class there. It’s a fun book regardless.

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