On Reading the Landscape

I was visiting my brother-in-law today, who has excellent taste in books, generally, when I found a copy of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson on his shelf. (I ogle books. I have no shame. Books are not there to be pretty, they are there to be read. Therefore, books like it when I visit, and happy books bring good energy to a home. See, I just infused your home with good energy. So what if you have to talk to my back while I stare at your shelves?)

Ahem. Anyway, I picked it up and was immediately drawn in to the story, which I knew a little of having read Edward R. Tufte’s Visual Explanations. (Ooo, I do love Tufte’s works. Envisioning Information makes me goosepimply. I have a physical response to the visual description of information. Maps, well-designed timetables, those “maps of the internet” all elicit this response to some degree. I’m probably sharing too much here.) Johnson’s book explores the story of the London cholera epidemic in the 19th century, and John Snow, who is called the father of epidemiology for figuring out the spread and source of the disease by mapping its transference vectors.

There is a leap of understanding there that astounds me, puts me in my place. How could one hope to have such a leap in one’s lifetime? I have not read the book yet so I’m not exact on the state of general medical knowledge at the time, but the stretch from general upper-class belief that the lower classes’ bad smell and weak constitutions were what made them ill, to mapping the course of the illness on a two-dimensional surface in order to understand the movement of an opportunistic squatter like cholera is wonderful to behold. It is the place from whence globes and flint-knapping and walking miles from one city to another in order to calculate the circumference of the earth are compatriots.

Specifically, too, I find it arresting to note how a map in particular helped this quest for knowledge. Usually, we utilize maps to find places, maps already filled in, perhaps with little symbols like or or . They supply us with information and from there we make decisions–turn right, or there’s a place to eat around the corner, or some such. The act of filling in information in a quest to find out a piece of information that was not going to be filled in itself but was going to be the result of other pieces working together with the wee plus, minus, and equal signs in John Snow’s brain eventually led to a process that was really more akin to algebra than tourism.  Rather than relying on the map to provide the answer, Snow used a map to discern the answer for himself, an answer which did not ultimately lie upon the surface of his displayed data but in the fact that he used the right interface, the right technology (the map!), to analyze it, and then knew what to look for.  You could say he knew how to look for.  As Mary Everest Boole (insert genuflection here) noted so wisely, algebra is a constant awareness of our own ignorance.  What we don’t know.  What we do know becomes variables in the equation.  I mean really, wouldn’t it be absolutely keen to have a paradigm shift happen in your head?

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