What is it with Wired journalists and their superficially-attractive-yet-underlyingly-bollocks theories of the world? Did they learn nothing from The Long Boom? Not too long after Chris Anderson rolled through town with his bad Amazon maths and middle-aged YouTube gawpery, up rocks Steven Berlin Johnson to talk about The Ghost Map, and according to, er, my website:
Johnson will explore what a cholera outbreak in the nineteenth century can tell us about solving the long term challenges we face in the twenty-first century.
which sounds interesting enough, so along I roll to see the talk introduced by Brian Eno (charming and tweedily avuncular), in his capacity as co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, devoted to taking the 10,000-year perspective on things.
It starts off with SBJ talking about how the mystery of London’s 1854 cholera epidemic was solved by a dilettante doctor and a priest who mapped the cases to their source in the Broad Street Pump. And as far the story goes, it’s good.
After that, it gets bizarrely irrelevant. The ‘challenges’ of the twenty-first century apparently consist of 1) people living in cities in the US being a good thing because it they vote Democrat and 2) whether ‘community’ can (yaaaaawn) exist online as well as offline. 3) meandering gossip about Second Life and how to punish people who interrupt the view of a virtual sunset with political slogans.
Eno praises denizens of the ‘real’ third world who build up elaborate Second Lives and then sell them to rich westerners as an entrepreneurial marvel, rather than some obscene kind of social organ harvesting. In fact there’s rather a lot of talk about Second Life. The audience are no better, asking us to indulge in ‘thought experiments’ about those valuable democratic voters getting drowned because they live near the coast, and asking about the role of the ‘exurbs’.
So what had been a half-formed sympathetic question on my part about how you relate the central-urban problem of a cholera epidemic to Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums becomes a small tirade about the ‘hobbies of metropolitan elites’, and asking if they have anything to say that relates to the reality of life the modern inhabitants of cities, ie slum dwellers. (It’s not until I get home that Ruth reminds me that while safely conquered in nineteenth century London, even cholera itself is still busy killing people in refugee camps and warzones around the world.)
Eno’s response is to tell me to read Robert Neuwirth, and then to say that slums are self-organising, that they gain infrastructure and develop, and lastly even that the cure to slums is gentrification, where former slum property becomes desirable and slum areas are incorporated into cities properly. And that the Second Life demographic isn’t the metropolitan elite because it’s, er, half female, and contains a lot of old people.
Then he tells an anecdote about a clock he made for the Science Museum, and the talk’s over. I’m amazed by how little their arrogance translates into any evidence of actual thought about the world, particularly its inequalities. If these people are looking after the future, then we are well and truly fucked.