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Filmed on Thursday April 1, 02010

David Eagleman

Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization

Neuroscientist David Eagleman is director for the Laboratory of Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and author of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.

David Eagleman may be the best combination of scientist and fiction-writer alive. Sum, his collection of afterlife alternatives, made a stunning literary debut last year and now appears in 21 languages. Simultaneously he is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, specializing in time perception.

In this talk he spells out how to save the world.

Averting Collapse

Civilizations always think they're immortal, Eagleman noted, 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." 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.

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.

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SALT Summaries Book

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Condensed ideas about long-term thinking summarized by Stewart Brand
(with Kevin Kelly, Alexander Rose and Paul Saffo) and a foreword by Brian Eno.

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We would also like to recognize George Cowan (01920 - 02012) for being the first to sponsor this series.