Blog Post

One Easy Step to Avert the Collapse of Civilization

On my run this morning I listened to an MP3 of David Eagleman's RSA lecture, which I've since discovered is also available in slightly different form from fora.tv. As my title suggests, in a sense Eagleman's prescription actually amounts to just one easy step, the Internet, which obviates or provides remedies for all six of his key civilization-ending threats:

1. Try not to cough on one another.

2. Don't lose things.

3. Tell each other faster.

4. Mitigate tyranny.

5. Get more brains involved in solving problems.

6. Try not to run out of energy.

As a card-carrying anti-triumphantalist (as evidenced by some of my previous HASTAC blogposts, especially this one) I'll admit I snorted when I realized this was Eagleman's point. But he makes a surprisingly good (and properly balanced), noting in particular the ways that the Internet can dramatically boost the strength of information signal even if it sometimes comes at the cost of additional noise. Eagleton also recognizes the extent to which the civilization-augmenting (and even civilization-saving) potential of the Internet remains a political struggle that requires promotion of open-source forms and "constant vigilance" against government and corporate censorship. The most striking statistic, for me, came during point one, with Eagleton's explanation of the way Google is able to identify outbreaks of the flu weeks faster than the CDC, simply by taking note of the areas from which people are doing flu-related searches. It takes them as little as a day.

Though not perfect (what is?), particularly on questions of energy sustainability and the very real risk of a digital Dark Age, it's a fascinating talk. I think my HASTAC peers will love it.

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