TECH TALK: Good Books: The Ghost Map (Part 2)

Jason Kottke wrote in a review of the book on his blog:

The Ghost Map is a book about:
– a bacterium
– the human body
– a geographical map
– a man
– a working friendship
– a household
– a city government
– a neighborhood
– a waste management system1
– an epidemic
– a city
– human civilization

You hooked yet? Well, you should be. As the narrative unfolds around the 1854 London cholera epidemic, author Steven Johnson weaves all of these social, geographical, and biological structures/webs/networks into a scientific parable for the contemporary world. The book is at its best when it zooms among these different scales in a Powers of Ten-like fashion (something Johnson calls The Long Zoom), demonstrating the interplay between them: the way the geography of a neighborhood affected the spread of a virus, how ideas spreading within a social context are like an epidemic, or the comparison between the organism of the city and the geography of a bacterial colony within the human colon. None of this is surprising if you’ve read anything about emergence, complexity, or social scale invariance, but Johnson effectively demonstrates how tightly coupled the development of (as well as our understanding of) viral epidemics and large cities were across all of these scales.

The New York Times wrote in a review:

Theres a great story here, one of the signal episodes in the history of medical science, and Johnson recounts it well. It centers, figuratively and literally, on the infamous Broad Street pump. That pump, which was public, free and previously considered a safe source of drinking water, drew from a well beneath Golden Square, home to some of Londons poorest and most overcrowded people. In the last week of August 1854, many residents of Golden Square suddenly took sick and began dying. Their symptoms included upset stomach, vomiting, gut cramps, diarrhea and racking thirst. Whatever the cause, it was fast fast to kill (sometimes within 12 hours of onset) and fast in spreading to new victims. Hundreds of residents had been seized by the disease within a few hours of one another, in many cases entire families, left to tend for themselves in dark, suffocating rooms, Johnson writes. Seventy fatalities occurred in a 24-hour period, most within five square blocks, and hundreds more people were in danger. You could see the dead being wheeled down the street by the cartload.

Johnson goes beyond the immediate details of the 1854 epidemic to consider such related matters as the history of toilets, the upgrading of Londons sewer system, the importance of population density for a disease that travels in human excrement, and the positive as well as negative aspects of urbanization itself. Never before Victorian London, Johnson reminds us, had 2.4 million primates of any species lived together within a 30-mile perimeter.
By solving the cholera mystery, Johnson asserts, John Snow and Henry Whitehead helped make the world safe for big cities. And cities are where the action is (he really does use that phrase, alas), being centers of opportunity, tolerance, wealth creation, social networking, health, population control and creativity.

A final word from Fred Wilson:

Woven into the story is a textbook on cholera, microbes, biology, society, urbanization, epidemics, sewers and cesspools, and much more.

It is the way I love to learn. by stories that mean something as opposed to dry textbooks or lectures that put me to sleep.

If you are fascinated by technology and its impact on society, you should read this book.

TECH TALK Good Books+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.