Octopus yoga

Why meatspace is where it’s at

Steven Johnson just published The Ghost Map, a superb book about the 1854 outbreak of cholera in London — and how its cause was uncovered by a clergyman and a doctor who used local maps to grok the topology of the outbreak. Cool enough, but Johnson used his thinking about neighborhoods and mapping to create a new website called

It’s a pretty simple concept: You type in your zip code or address, and shows you any relevant info online — ranging from blogger reviews about nearby restaurants to tidbits in local papers. I popped in my zip code — 10011 — and got info about a new nearby Austrian restaurant, city-council tax reform, and nearby artists working on a Darfur project.

The really interesting thing here, though, is Johnson’s philosophy behind the project: The seemingly paradoxical proposition that while Internet technologies were originally touted as “making geography irrelevant”, in actual fact they excel at the opposite — giving you richer info about the stuff that’s going on nearby you. As Johnson told today’s New York Times Arts section:

“It really shows that the old idea that the Internet was going to make cities obsolete had it exactly wrong,” he said. “In fact the Internet enhances cities in all these different ways. I think it lets people have the kinds of conversations that we sentimentally always imagined that people were having.”

“When you combine that mix of the opportunity for discussion and debate between people who don’t necessarily know each other, when it’s all grounded in an actual physical place and it’s not just about going into a game world and arguing over dragons or something like that,” he continued, “then I think you have something that is a real enhancement of civic conversation and the kind of public space that’s so important in a great city.”

Amen. Much as I thrive in virtual worlds — from World of Warcraft to the blogosphere to ECHO — you can’t deny that meatspace is where it’s at. Mind you, if I didn’t already love the idea of being surrounded by millions of interesting strangers and having their lives collide with mine at unpredictable moments and with a wildly varying quality of results, I wouldn’t live in New York. Heh.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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