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?