By David Eagleman | 16 November 2010, 16:30 BST
Many great civilisations have fallen, leaving nothing but cracked ruins and scattered genetics.
Although the number of collapsed nations is high, the underlying problems which provoke their demise tend to fall into only a handful of categories: disease, natural disasters, poor information flow, political corruption, economic meltdown or resource depletion.
We arguably face similar threats today. But we are luckier than our predecessors, because we command a technology that no one else possessed: a rapid communication network that finds its highest expression in the internet. I propose there are six ways in which the internet has vastly reduced the threat of societal collapse.
1. Epidemics can be deflected by telepresence
One of our more dire prospects for collapse is an infectious disease epidemic. Viral and bacterial 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, thanks to our ability to work remotely - or 'telepresently'. This 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 required for an epidemic. If we are well-prepared when such 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.
We are witnessing the downfall of slow central control in the media: news stories are increasingly becoming user-generated nets of up-to-the-minute information. During the recent California wildfires, locals watched their televisions to learn whether their neighbourhoods were in danger. But the news stations appeared most concerned with the fate of celebrity mansions, so Californians changed their tack: they uploaded geotagged cellphone pictures, updated Facebook statuses, and tweeted. And the balance tipped: the internet carried news about the fire more quickly and accurately than any news station could.
In this grassroots, decentralised scheme, there were embedded reporters on every neighbourhood block, and the news shockwave kept ahead of the firefront. In the right circumstances, this headstart could provide the extra hours that save us. If the Pompeians had the internet in 79CE, I calculate they could have easily marched ten kilometres to safety, well ahead of the pyroclastic flow from Mount Vesuvius.
"Knowledge is hard won but easily lost"
Historically, critical information has required constant rediscovery. Collections of learning - from the Library at Alexandria to the Mayan corpus of literature to the entire Minoan civilisation - have fallen to the bonfires of invaders or the wrecking ball of natural disasters. Knowledge is hard won but easily lost.
Moreover, information that survives often does not spread. Consider smallpox inoculation: this practice was underway in India, China and Africa for hundreds of years before it made its way to Europe. By the time the idea reached North America, the native civilisations who needed the knowledge had already collapsed.
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.
Censorship of ideas has been a familiar spectre 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 elsewhere. In all these cases, censorship hobbled the society and fomented revolutions. And in many cases, such as Lysenko's agricultural despotism in the USSR, it directly contributed to the collapse of the nation.
Historically, a more successful strategy has been to confront free speech with free speech - and the internet allows this in a natural way. It democratises 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. Given the vigorous attempt by some governments to build nationwide firewalls, it is clear that this benefit of the internet will require constant vigilance.
Crowd-sourcing brings together massive groups of people to solve problems. While this method has proven itself fruitful, far less than 1% of the world's population is ever involved in such projects. We need to expand human capital if we want to be prepared against a future of existential threats.
The problem is that 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 and a smaller pool of problem-solvers.
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.
We are finally in a position to actualise the brains available in our worldwide population.
Societal collapse can often be understood in terms of an energy budget: when energy expenditure begins to outweigh energy return, collapse ensues. Historically, this has taken the form of deforestation or soil erosion; currently, the worry involves fossil fuel depletion.
The internet addresses the energy problem with a kind of natural ease. Consider the massive energy savings inherent in the shift from paper to electrons - as seen in the transition from the postal system to email. Or to take another example, consider the way e-commerce reduces the need to drive long distances to browse and purchase products.
Surprisingly, delivery trucks are more eco-friendly than individuals driving around, not least because of tight packaging and optimisation algorithms for driving routes.
Of course, there are energy costs to the banks of computers that underpin the internet - but these costs are 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 fatal diseases of civilisation.
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 your co-worker laments about internet addiction, the banality of tweeting, or the decline of face-to-face conversation, you may want to suggest that the internet - even with all its flashy wastefulness - may just be the technology that saves us.
Source: Forum for the future