david_m_eagleman's picture
Neuroscientist, Stanford University; Author, Incognito, Sum, The Brain

The Internet has changed the way I think about our threats for societal collapse. When we learn of the empires that have tumbled before us, it is plausible to think that our civilization will adhere to the same path and eventually fall to a traditional malady — anything from epidemics to resource depletion. But the rapid advance of the Internet has thoroughly (and happily) changed my opinion about our customary existential threats. Here are six ways that I think the possession of a rapid and vast communication network will make us much luckier than our predecessors:

1. Disease Epidemics

One of our more dire prospects for collapse is an infectious disease epidemic. Bacterial or viral epidemics precipitated the fall of the Golden Age of Athens, the Roman Empire, and most of the empires of the Native Americans. The Internet can be our key to survival, because the ability to work telepresently can inhibit microbial transmission by reducing human-to-human contact. In the face of an otherwise devastating epidemic, businesses can keep supply chains running with the maximum number of employees working from home. This won't keep everyone off the streets, but it can reduce host density below the tipping point. If we are well-prepared when an epidemic arrives, we can fluidly shift into a self-quarantined society in which microbes fail due to host sparseness. Whatever the social ills of isolation, they bode worse for the microbes than for us.

2. Availability of Knowledge

Important discoveries have historically stayed local. Consider smallpox inoculation: this practice was underway in India, China and Africa for at least one hundred years before it made its way to Europe. By the time the idea reached North America, the native civilizations had long collapsed.

And information is not only hard to share, it's hard to keep alive. Collections of learning — from the Library at Alexandria to the Mayan corpus — have fallen to the bonfires of invaders or the winds of natural disasters. Knowledge is hard won but easily lost.

The Internet addresses the problem of knowledge-sharing better than any technology we've had. New discoveries latch on immediately: the information spreads widely and the redundancy prevents erasure. In this way, societies can optimally ratchet up, using the latest bricks of knowledge in their fortification against existential threats.

3. Speed by Decentralization

We are witnessing the downfall of slow central control in the media: news stories are increasingly becoming user-generated Nets of dynamically updated information. During the recent California wildfires, locals went to the TV stations to learn whether their neighborhoods were in danger. But the news stations appeared most concerned with the fate of celebrity mansions, so Californians changed their tack: they posted tweets, uploaded geotagged cell phone pics, and updated Facebook. And the balance tipped: the Internet carried the news more quickly and accurately than any news station could. In this decentralized regime, there were embedded reporters on every neighborhood block, and the news shockwave kept ahead of the firefront. In the right circumstances, this headstart could provide the extra hours that save us.

4. Minimization of censorship

Political censorship has been a familiar specter in the last century, with state-approved news outlets ruling the press, airwaves, and copying machines in the former USSR, Romania, Cuba, China, Iraq, and other countries. In all these cases, censorship hobbled the society and fomented revolutions. Historically, a more successful strategy has been to confront free speech with free speech — and the Internet allows this in a natural way. It democratizes the flow of information by offering access to the newspapers of the world, the photographers of every nation, the bloggers of every political stripe. Some postings are full of doctoring and dishonesty while others strive for independence and impartiality — but all are available for the end-user to sift through for reasoned consideration.

5. Democratization of Education

Most of the world does not have access to the education afforded to a small minority. For every Albert Einstein, Yo-Yo Ma or Barack Obama who has the opportunity for education, there are uncountable others who never get the chance. This vast squandering of talent translates directly into reduced economic output. In a world where economic meltdown is often tied to collapse, societies are well-advised to leverage all the human capital they have.

The Internet opens the gates of education to anyone who can get her hands on a computer. This is not always a trivial task, but the mere feasibility re-defines the playing field. A motivated teen anywhere on the planet can walk through the world's knowledge — from the Webs of Wikipedia to the curriculum of MIT's Open Course Ware.

6. Energy Savings

It is sometimes argued that societal collapse can be cast in terms of energy: when energy expenditure begins to outweigh energy return, collapse ensues. The Internet addresses the energy problem with a kind of natural ease. Consider the massive energy savings inherent in the shift from snail-mail to email. As recently as last decade, information amassed not in gigabytes but in cubic meters of filing cabinets. Beyond convenience, it may be that the technological shift from paper to electrons is critical to the future. Of course, there are energy costs to the banks of computers that underpin the Internet — but these costs are far less than the forests and coal beds and oil deposits that would be spent for the same quantity of information flow.

The tangle of events that trigger societal collapse can be complex, and there are several existential threats the Internet does not address. Nonetheless, it appears that vast, networked communication can serve as an antidote to several of the most common and fatal diseases of civilization. Almost by accident, we now command the capacity for self-quarantining, retaining knowledge, speeding information flow, reducing censorship, actualizing human capital, and saving energy resources. So the next time a co-worker laments about Internet addiction, the banality of tweets, or the decline of face-to-face conversation, I will sanguinely suggest that the Internet — even with all its flashy wastefulness — may just be the technology that saves us.