Friday, February 13, 2009

Everything Inventive Is Good For You

Earlier this week I wrapped up Steven Johnson's latest, The Invention of Air, a pop-sci biography of Joseph Priestley. The book was typical, enjoyable Johnson: cleverly woven anecdotes, theoretical hints concerning networks and ecologies of influence, and iterative trigger-phrases that pop just enough to keep the narrative lively and fast-moving. I soared through the first 160 pages in-flight last Friday and then got back into the final chapters a couple of days ago. And I liked the book very much, except that it slowed ever so slightly near the end: the young, experimental Priestley was more provocative than the aging, dislocated Priestley. The latter, it turns out, suffered late in the religious and political aspects of his life because of the the same "congenital openness" (190) (or "chronic intellectual openness" (142)) that helped him become so influential on enlightenment scientific inquiry, and this section of the book worked at a noticeably different pace than the one dealing with Priestley's tinkering with plants.

Johnson characterizes his own ecological approach to Priestley's life with the phrase "long zoom":

Ecosystem theory has changed our view of the planet in countless ways, but as an intellectual model it has one defining characteristic: it is a "long zoom" science, one that jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline to discipline, to explain its object of study: from the microbiology of bacteria, to the cross-species flux of nutrient cycling, to the global patterns of weather systems, all the way out to the physics that explains how solar energy collides with the Earth's atmosphere. (45)

The "long zoom", thus, is both a description of Priestley's intellectual manner and also Johnson's method of developing the biography. "Long zoom" is an idea Johnson incubated in an NYU seminar he taught on Cultural Ecosystems and through an invited talk he gave to the Long Now Foundation in 2007 (according to footnotes in TIoA). I doubt that The Invention of Air does full justice to the concept as Johnson thinks of it, but the project does, on the other hand, seem to enact the "long zoom." In the passage above, the reference to scale-jumping exposes one of the rough edges of the concept. The "zoom" also comes off as predominantly vertical, along the lines of the orders of magnitude, more than horizontal or some combination of the two (viz. networked); it is not, in other words, a "long pan" or "long track" (here I'm thinking of the extended camera metaphors--pan, track, zoom--adopted smartly by Rosenwasser and Stephen when they talk about inquiry, research, and modes of engaging with an object of study). I mean that Johnson's "long zoom," even though he does not say so explicitly in The Invention of Air, seems to work both horizontally, vertically, and extra-dimensionally, as suited to networked relations as to ordered magnitudes, and all the while alert to the dangers in too recklessly skipping from one scale to another (Latour).

Priestley comes to light as a "roving" intellectual (205), one whose "hot hand" series of scientific breakthroughs culminated as consequence of a 30-year "long hunch" he'd been following (70). The "long zoom"--a kind of scale-shifting, one-thing-leads-to-another approach--allows Johnson to pin down Priestley's knowledge-making wanderluck. Yet, at another point, Priestley's success with hunches appears to be as much grounded in his "knack for 'socializing' with his own ideas" (74) as a credit to his roving, generalist sensibility. Where Johnson writes of Priestley's affinity for socializing with his own ideas, TIoA comes remarkably close to delivering a product placement ad for DevonThink--almost to the point of making me thing I'd read about it before (re: Johnson, not Priestley).

There is much more to say about The Invention of Air, but I'm out of time, viz. paradigms and anomalies (44), coffee and coffeehouses (54), hack vs. theoretician (62), ecosystems view of the world (82).

Bookmark and Share Posted by at February 13, 2009 3:40 PM to Reading Notes