The long zoom

by Limbic on October 17, 2010

Steven Johnson has a concept called the “long zoom”:

Steven defined long-zoom thinking as a manner of analysis that “jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline to discipline, to explain its object of study.” In seeking a full explanation for any significant cultural or historical phenomenon, he says, you need to take into account various layers of explanation, none of which should dominate the conversation: neurochemistry, biography, social networks, information networks, technological platforms, political regimes, economic modes, and settlement patterns. Major events rarely unfold within a single layer, he writes. I see the Long Zoom as a practical application of pragmatist philosophy — a search for a language that reaches, wherever possible, outside of strict ideologies and specialized fields.

Sometime in Year 3 or Year 4 of writing The Rest Is Noise, when I felt overwhelmed by my subject, I had a long conversation with Steven about his Long Zoom idea, and it had a liberating effect. I realized that I could encompass the mass of material not by trying to subdue it under a single conception but by following the intersections of the layers. The zoom metaphor allowed me to make sudden shifts without unduly agonizing over them: if I moved from musical analysis to personal biography to political history to narratives of technological or social change, I was staying true to the intricacy of music’s engagement in the world. Indeed, that darting movement might reveal something that a fixed perspective might miss. As Steven says in his new book, “seeing the problem of innovation from the long-zoom perspective does not just give us new metaphors. It gives us new facts.” For that insight, much thanks.

From: Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise: The Long Zoom of music

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Luke Lea October 26, 2010 at 6:52 pm

The physicist Leonard Susskind says that is the basic idea of renormalization.


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