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.” Undertapping human capital endangers the future. Open courseware 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.
See the webinar explaining these things, here.
These hard to dispute maxims were developed by the flashy neuroscientist, David Eagleman. He presented them to the Long Now Foundation, an institute that makes a boat load of money selling guru-esque science, technology, and economics books and seminars. Like TED Talks, the Long Now Foundation presents new thinking in a compelling way, salesy way.
Yes, I’m skeptical of TED and Long Now, mostly because they present information with a tone of all-knowing infallibility. One also has to be particularly “alpha” in order to make a presentation with either of these organizations - a disposition that the vast majority of researchers do not have. This method of presentation only supports a certain type of researcher, while thousands of others are left behind.
So, on the one hand, these organizations vacuum-up large sums of cash from an easily-entertained, science hungry public. On the other hand, ‘science-as-entertainment’ might be the best way to communicate heavy and complex ideas to wider audiences. Is “sci-tainment" sustainable? How long until the public becomes jaded from watching TED Talks and Long Now? How long will these organizations last? What are the long term effects of these things on various fields of scientific research?
Has anyone quantified the social impacts or value of TED Talks and the Long Now Foundation?
What do you think? Am I being too harsh on these venues?