Steven Johnson and Brian Eno at the ICA

Yesterday evening the ICA put on an event that was part book launch for Steven Johnson’s new book, The Ghost Map (subtitle: A Street, an Epidemic and the Two Men Who Battled to Save Victorian London — these long ‘pitch’ subtitles are getting out of hand), and part first UK event for the Long Now Foundation. It was a similar kind of discussion to last year’s Longplayer conversation.
As the sole non-US founder of the Long Now Foundation, Brian Eno started the discussion by outlining its short history. It was started ten years ago by ten people, including Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis (presumably the Board includes most if not all of the founders). The main aim is to ‘dignify’ long-term thinking. They have a set time frame of 10,000 years as the horizon for their projections. Projects include Long Bets, the Clock of the Long Now, and a series of talks in San Francisco available as a podcast.

Steven Johnson introduced his book by saying that one of things it’s about is the kinds of connections that cities make possible. It’s about the cholera epidemic in London in 1854, and how it was ‘solved’. At that time, the population of the city was 2.5 million people. No city had ever been this big, and many believed that it was too big; that it was unsustainable at its current size and and before long it would have to shrink to one tenth as many people. There was a ‘scavenger class’ of around 100,000 people who recycled some of what was thrown away, but otherwise waste of all kinds was all around. But notwithstanding these problems and the very limited scientific understanding of cholera, the last occurrence of the disease in London was in 1866, only twelve years after the epidemic. Many thousands died, but twelve years is a relatively brief period from the long now perspective. The Ghost Map of the title was a representation by John Snow (one of the Two Men of the subtitle), which he used to convince people that the epidemic was radiating out from an infected water pump in Soho. It was more a marketing vehicle than a tool of primary data analysis.
As with the Laurie Anderson and Doris Lessing discussion, I’m going to record the rest of the conversation as bullet-point-style glimpses. For other perspectives, see Russell Davies’ account and Blackbeltjones (the latter significantly more comprehensive than my notes, which were selective according to what sounded most interesting to me).
Brian Eno (BE) — Always a good source of a reading list (he must get his recommendations from here), Eno cites Rob Neuwirth’s book, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. Apparently the book explains that, as well as problems, the squatters in third world shanty sprawls also demonstrate some promise, in terms of new ways of organising and living together.
BE — Next year, for the first time in history, 50% of global population will live in cities. According to Stewart Brand (in a recent talk), emptying out the countryside is a good idea: it opens the possibility of freeing it from private ownership and returning it to the commons.
BE — Over 2.5 billion people lack access to clean water. It used to be the case that the cost of solving this problem was one fifth that of the war in Iraq; now it would be a much smaller proportion. There are many problems like this that require more power in institutions for global governance, but national governments are drawing more power towards themselves from local and global levels. [Related side-note: see my notes from David Rieff’s talk on transnational institutions for some explanations of this.]
BE — As a rule the English are less disposed to optimism than Americans, but Eno draws some hope from a recent talk by Lester Brown (who served in the Carter and possibly the Clinton administrations). Brown argues that the world now is like the Soviet Union in 1988: it looks as though it’s locked down and impervious to change, but all the institutions that resist change may soon disappear overnight. Brown’s recent book is Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble.
Steven Johnson (SJ) — Urbanisation brings with it many other changes. For a whole host of reasons, people who live in cities have many fewer children. For the first time, if you move to the city, your life expectancy goes up not down.
SJ — The real division in US is not between red states (Republican) and blue states (Democrat), but between red country areas and blue cities. The red states are just those with few big cities.
Matt Jones [question from the floor] — What about the exurbs? Aren’t they red, too?
Anon [question from the floor] — The blue areas in the US are all near water (oceans, rivers, lakes), so they have a more direct interest in rising sea levels from climate change.
BE — Second Life is an invented world, which overlaps into real world, as when, for example, Third World kids develop characters and real estate in Second Life and then sell them on for real currency. It’s also a demonstration of a growing trend whereby we now learn not by taking things apart but by seeking to emulate them, as in the Sims. [In response to a challenge from the floor] The demographic of Second Life is not just the metropolitan elite, but more complex than that (50% of users are female, older people spend more time on it).

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