The End of Civilization

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I keep thinking of REM’s song “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Learning from our past and gathering the right information will spell our survival. Is the Internet the savior of our present day civilization? Some would tell you it’s quite the opposite. David Eagleman’s “Six Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization” tries to shed some light in our way of living as whole and maintaining it longer than other civilizations that fell before ours. Communication is vital and the Internet is that one tool will guarantee the further advancement of civilization and not fall into dark ages as history has told before. The barbarians are always knocking at the door. Do we have the right tools from letting them sack us once again?

Neuroscientist and fiction writer David Eagleman presents “Six Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization.” Civilizations always think they’re immortal, Eagleman says, but they nearly always perish, leaving “nothing but ruins and scattered genetics.” It takes luck and new technology to survive. We may be particularly lucky to have Internet technology to help manage the six requirements of a durable civilization:

1. “Try not to cough on one another.” More humans have died from epidemics than from all famines and wars. Disease precipitated the fall of Greece, Rome, and the civilizations of the Americas. People used to bunch up around the infected, which pushed local disease into universal plague. Now we can head that off with Net telepresence, telemedicine, and medical alert networks. All businesses should develop a work-from-home capability for their workforce.

2. “Don’t lose things.” As proved by the destruction of the Alexandria Library and of the literature of Mayans and Minoans, “knowledge is hard won but easily lost.” Plumbing disappeared for a thousand years when Rome fell. Inoculation was invented in China and India 700 years before Europeans rediscovered it. These days Michelangelo’s David has been safely digitized in detail. Eagleman has direct access to all the literature he needs via PubMed, JSTOR, and Google Books. “Distribute, don’t reinvent.”

3. “Tell each other faster.” Don’t let natural disasters cascade. The Minoans perished for lack of the kind of tsunami alert system we now have. Countless Haitians in the recent earthquake were saved by Ushahidi.com, which aggregated cellphone field reports in real time.

4. “Mitigate tyranny.” The USSR’s collapse was made inevitable by state-controlled media and state-mandated mistakes such as Lysenkoism, which forced a wrong theory of wheat farming on 13 time zones, and starved millions. Now crowd-sourced cellphone users can sleuth out vote tampering. We should reward companies that stand up against censorship, as Google has done in China.

5. “Get more brains involved in solving problems.” Under tapping human capital endangers the future. Open course-ware from colleges is making higher education universally accessible. Crowd-sourced problem solving is being advanced by sites such as PatientsLikeMe, Foldit (protein folding), and Cstart (moon exploration). Perhaps the next step is “society sourcing.”

6. “Try not to run out of energy.” When energy expenditure outweighs energy return, collapse ensues. Email saves trees and trucking. Online shopping is a net energy gain, with UPS optimizing delivery routes and never turning left. We need to expand the ability to hold meetings and conferences online.

But if the Net is so crucial, what happens if the Net goes down? It may have to go down a few times before we learn how to defend it properly, before we catch on that civilization depends on it for survival.
— by Stewart Brand