stuart_pimm's picture
Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology, Duke University; Author, The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth

Once upon a time, we had the same world we do now. We knew little about its problems.

Wise men and women pontificated about their complete worlds, worlds that, for some, stretched only to the limits of their city centres or, sometimes, only to the grounds of their colleges. This allowed them clever conceits about what was really important in life, art, science and the rest of it.

Lesser minds would come to pay homage and, let's be honest, use the famous library since that was the only way of knowing what was known and who knew it. The centres ruled and they knew it.

It's late in evening, when I see the light on in the lab and stop by to see who else is working late. There's a conversation going on over Skype. It's totally incomprehensible. Even its sounds aren't familiar. There's no RosettaStone© for the language my two students are learning from their correspondent who sits in a café in a wretched oil town on the edge of the rainforest in Ecuador. It's only spoken by a few hundred Indians. All but their children were born as nomads in a forest that has the luck to be sitting on billions of barrels of oil. I didn't say "good luck."

In a few months, we'll be in that forest. My students will improve their language skills with the Indian women, helping them prepare chicha, by chewing manioc, spitting it into the bowl and chewing another mouthful.

With the Internet, what happens there is as exactly close as anything else I want to understand or communicate, give or take the slow phone line, or cell phone reception. When an oil company pushes a road far closer to a reserve than it promised, we'll know about it immediately. When some settlers try to clear forest, we'll know about them killing Indians just as quickly and when the Indians kill them with their spears. So will everyone else.

The Internet is instant news from remote places with photos to prove it. What we now think about instantly is suddenly much larger, more frightening, and far more challenging than it once was.

The Internet has vastly more coverage of everything, immediate, future, and past. So when we want to know who has signed which oil exploration leases to which tracts of remote forest, the data are not in Duke's library (or anyone else's), but I can get them online from the Web site of local newspapers. And I can do that in the forest clearing, surrounded by those who futures have been signed away. Knowledge is now everywhere. You can find it from everywhere too.

Internet has vastly increased the size of the problem set about humanity's future. Some problems now look really puny. They probably always were.

Who does the thinking has changed too. When knowledge is everywhere, so are the thinkers.