The problems start with Eagleman’s premise, which is so vague and broad as to be practically meaningless. There are, he writes, just “a handful of reasons” that civilizations collapse: “disease, poor information flow, natural disasters, political corruption, resource depletion and economic meltdown.” Lucky for us (and Eagleman does offer readers “[c]ongratulations on living in a fortuitous moment in history”), the technology that created the web “obviates many of the threats faced by our ancestors. In other words…[t]he advent of the internet represents a watershed moment in history that just might rescue our future.”
On the other hand, it just might not: In order to make his point, Eagleman either ignores or doesn’t bother to look for any evidence that might undercut it. The first of six “random access” chapters that make up the bulk of Why The Net Matters is devoted to “Sidestepping Epidemics,” like the smallpox outbreak that helped bring down the Aztec Empire. In the future, Eagleman writes, the “protective net,” in the form of telemedicine, telepresence (“the ability to work remotely via computer”), and sophisticated information tracking, will save us from these outbreaks. That all sounds lovely, but what of the fact that we’re currently experiencing a resurgence in vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles…a resurgence which is fueled in no small part by misinformation spread over that very same “protective net”?
I can scarcely believe my good fortune, but this book seems to be a hybrid of two of my favorite genres of writing — the “It Gets Better” school of historical analysis, and techno-triumphalism. Human nature is either changing for the better, or if not, our technological inventions will neutralize our flaws. It’s strange, isn’t it, this — what should we call it? — this crackpot meme-geneticism that only “good” ideas will produce offspring in the form of consequences; the bad ones will apparently wither away like the state under Communism. It’s strange, this belief in intellectual alchemy, this idea that if you just compile ever-greater quantities of data, it will somehow morph into wisdom.
It’s pretty widely accepted that reading books is a sign of virtue, of being a more all-around intelligent, nuanced thinker. But I can tell you that some of the books I’ve recently come across that were both profitable and possessed of a high sales rank were books on feng shui and homeopathy, and books on lunatic conspiracy theories. Educated people with disposable income and Internet savvy buy these books. What I’m saying is, information, speed and efficiency are, in and of themselves, amoral. Knowledge is not simply the result of rational consumers surveying a balanced marketplace of ideas and making a dispassionate choice.