Self Help

The Safety Net - David Eagleman

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Matheus Puppe

· 14 min read

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Here is a summary of the key points from the Table of Contents:

  • The preface discusses how the book originally predicted technology could help prevent civilization collapse from pandemics. It notes how the COVID-19 pandemic has shown both unprecedented and expected aspects, and highlights how internet-based communication has enabled a better response.

  • The first chapter discusses common reasons for past civilizations’ collapse, like epidemics, natural disasters, political issues, and examines how modern communication technology may help mitigate these threats.

  • Subsequent chapters discuss specific collapse threats like epidemics and how the internet helps with issues like tracking outbreaks, finding resources, and keeping supply chains running during lockdowns.

  • Other topics discussed include the importance of the aftermath of disasters, social media’s role in revolutions, threats to internet infrastructure itself, preserving cultural knowledge, responding to new threats, and cultivating human capital in the digital age.

  • The conclusion reiterates the book aims to examine technology’s impact on civilization survival prospects over millennia, arguing communication advances have changed the risk calculus compared to past societies.

  • Smallpox and bubonic plague are two highly contagious diseases that have significantly impacted human civilizations and empires throughout history. Smallpox killed millions of Native Americans when Europeans arrived in the Americas. The plague contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire and caused massive population losses in Europe in the 14th century.

  • Other pandemics like the 1918 influenza pandemic, yellow fever, malaria, and typhus have also drastically altered the course of history by killing large numbers of people and destabilizing societies.

  • These diseases have historically been able to spread effectively due to high population densities and human contact/travel. However, the rise of telecommunications and telemedicine have created new tools to reduce transmission.

  • Telepresence (remote work) allows economies and supply chains to continue functioning while reducing physical contact during outbreaks. This can help lower transmission below epidemic thresholds.

  • Telemedicine enables remote diagnosis and treatment, reducing the potential for disease spread in waiting rooms and medical facilities. Both telepresence and telemedicine help implement physical distancing when needed.

  • While future pandemics are inevitable, these technologies may allow civilizations to maintain stability and continuity even during severe disease outbreaks for the first time in history. Reducing contact is key to controlling transmission.

The passage discusses how knowledge and history have been lost throughout history due to destruction. It provides two key examples:

  1. The Library of Alexandria, which housed hundreds of thousands of scrolls containing the knowledge of many ancient civilizations, was burned down during a battle between Julius Caesar and Ptolemy XIII. This essentially wiped out all the knowledge that had been accumulated over decades.

  2. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, they ordered the burning of codices - bark paper books containing the writing system, history, culture, mathematics, and knowledge of the Maya people over 800 years. Only three complete codices and a fragment of a fourth survived, leaving little record of the full extent of Mayan achievements and civilization.

The overall message is that crucial stores of human knowledge and history have been lost or destroyed numerous times due to conflicts, conquests, and mistaken beliefs. Entire civilizations’ worth of discoveries and literature have disappeared, highlighting how fragile knowledge can be and reminding us of “the rule rather than the exception of history.”

The passage discusses how civilizations like the Mayans and Minoans lost all their knowledge and history when their societies collapsed. This was due to a lack of effective means to preserve and spread information over long distances and times.

In contrast, the development of the internet has created a way to distribute knowledge storage globally through networks of redundancy. Ideas can now be discovered once and spread widely, reducing the risk of being lost. Online repositories make published research, books, journals, web pages searchable and preserved indefinitely.

This gives modern knowledge a measure of permanence and “digital immortality” that past civilizations lacked. As long as the internet survives, our words and ideas will not be so easily erased by disasters or the passage of time. The lesson is about how effectively retaining and distributing information can help civilizations survive through rediscovery of their knowledge.

  • Natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes have posed a major threat to civilizations throughout history by destroying cities and populations unexpectedly. Examples given include Pompeii being buried by Vesuvius, and the 1931 Central China floods killing 4 million people.

  • However, our ability to store knowledge redundantly online through projects like Digital Michelangelo scanning statues in high resolution means civilization’s ideas and artifacts can now survive even if the physical locations are destroyed. Knowledge is mirrored globally and can be endlessly reproduced.

  • By preserving whole cities, brains, and information on the internet, through techniques like photo stitching and 3D scanning, our cultural achievements may achieve immortality and “allow civilizations to progress with the least slip-back” even after major disasters. Ideas become “steel structures rather than sandcastles” that can withstand events wiping out physical traces of civilizations.

  • This digital preservation outpaces the threat of natural disasters by ensuring civilizations do not lose valuable knowledge and have to rediscover ideas after catastrophes. It helps optimize problem solving and accelerate progress.

The passage discusses how technologies like the internet and networked communication can help mitigate the impacts of natural disasters by speeding up the flow of critical information. It provides examples of how information sharing via citizen journalism, social media, and crowdsourcing platforms helped people respond more effectively to wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters.

Specifically, it notes that during the 2007 California wildfires, people turned to the internet rather than centralized news sources to get more timely, accurate updates on unfolding dangers. This allowed people to evacuate areas at risk more quickly. It also describes how after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a system like the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center likely could have saved many lives had one been in place to detect and warn people of the impending waves.

Other examples discussed are how wireless communication may have helped Pompeians evacuate Vesuvius’s second deadly eruption, and how sites like Ushahidi helped coordinate relief efforts after the 2010 Haiti earthquake by aggregating citizen reports on needs in real-time. Overall, the passage argues rapid information sharing via networked technologies can help mitigate loss of life from disasters by giving people more lead time to escape hazards or respond effectively in aftermath situations.

  • Communist governments like the Soviet Union and Romania tightly controlled the flow of information through censorship and propaganda. News reports, weather forecasts, maps, and photographs were often doctored to suit the regime’s narrative.

  • The Soviets frequently edited historical photographs by removing individuals who had fallen out of favor, like Trotsky. They rewrote their national history.

  • Centralized control over agriculture in the Soviet Union under the discredited theories of Lysenko led to failures in wheat production and hindered the economy. Local knowledge was suppressed.

  • New technologies like copying machines, satellites, and the internet have made comprehensive censorship virtually impossible. The Streisand Effect shows that attempts to suppress information often amplify it instead.

  • Wikileaks publishes leaked documents from around the world, exposing government and corporate secrets and corruption. Such leaks can foster social change and lead to new laws protecting media freedom and transparency.

  • Rapid organization and protests through social media and online networks allow citizens to rally large demonstrations and challenge government actions quickly, as seen in protests in Canada, Iran, and other countries.

  • Protest broke out after Iran’s 2009 presidential election. Paramilitary snipers fired on crowds in the streets, killing people.

  • Videos and photos of the attacks were quickly uploaded and spread online through sites like Twitter. Cyber dissidents in Iran used social media to organize and spread information about the situation.

  • The government tried to curb the online activism by blocking cell networks, texting, and shutting down the internet for 45 minutes to install filtering software. However, protestors were still able to broadcast footage of the crackdown worldwide.

  • Similar internet-fueled protests emerged during the Arab Spring uprisings in places like Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. Activists used social media to organize protests, document government actions, and spread their message globally without traditional media filters.

  • Crowdsourcing sites like Ushahidi have also been used to monitor elections and report problems like voter intimidation or ballot stuffing in real-time. This helps increase transparency and deter election fraud.

  • However, many countries actively censor the internet through techniques like the Great Firewall of China. Governments aim to block politically sensitive discussions and control the online narrative. Protecting open access to information online remains an ongoing challenge.

  • WikiLeaks released a supposed list of websites that were to be censored by internet service providers in Australia under new filtering legislation. While the government claimed the list only contained sites related to child pornography and terrorism, the WikiLeaks list also included many random sites.

  • The minister denied the list was genuine but also threatened prosecution against anyone sharing it. Though the legislation did not pass, there was concern about increased censorship rising high in the legislative process.

  • Maintaining an open internet requires constant vigilance against government censorship attempts. Citizens and tech companies will need to find ways to circumvent blocks through encryption, proxies, satellites, etc.

  • Reducing paper usage through digitization helps conserve forests and resources, lowering energy demands. The internet and electronic documents have dramatically reduced paper consumption in recent decades, helping make economic growth less energy intensive. This accidental benefit may help societies stay within environmental carrying capacities.

  • In the early 2000s, electronic documents and data began moving digitally instead of via physical paper, saving on carbon emissions from transportation.

  • Finland’s postal service began scanning and emailing mail instead of physical delivery, showing digital alternatives can replicate physical services like mail and banking.

  • Telecommuting allows many to work from home, reducing traffic and associated emissions. Each telecommuter saves an estimated 320 gallons of gas per year.

  • Online meetings and conferences eliminate air travel emissions. E-commerce reduces driving for shopping compared to physical stores.

  • Efficient packaging and delivery routing by companies like UPS mean home deliveries emit less than individual trips to stores. Optimization avoids excess driving and left turns.

  • Downloading/streaming media eliminates physical packaging, manufacturing and shipping emissions compared to CDs and DVDs.

  • While computing and internet infrastructure use energy, estimates show it’s a low percentage of total usage, and efficiency continuously improves through technologies like more powerful chips that use less power.

  • Overall, digitization and the internet provide environmental benefits by reducing transportation needs and increasing efficiency compared to physical alternatives.

  • Online thermostats and smart energy monitoring systems for homes and buildings allow remote control and monitoring of temperature, lights, appliances, etc. This enables more efficient energy use by avoiding wasted energy when places are unoccupied.

  • Large-scale projects in Germany and by Cisco have demonstrated significant energy savings through centralized monitoring and control of public buildings and commercial offices. McKinsey estimates energy use could be cut over 50% in the next 15 years with these types of tools.

  • However, monitoring individual buildings is still too small in scope. A “smart grid” that allows two-way communication across the entire electricity network could optimize energy generation, distribution and use on a massive scale by dynamically matching supply and demand in real-time. This could incorporate more renewable sources and give users control over appliance usage.

  • A smart grid could make the energy system more efficient, flexible, decentralized, and resistant to failures or attacks by leveraging information technology and networking principles similar to the internet. Many developed countries are working to implement versions of smart grids.

  • Crowdsourcing projects like Foldit, CSTART, and Netflix Grand Prize have successfully tapped into the “hive mind” to solve difficult scientific and technical problems. However, these are still considered “elite-sourcing” as less than 1% of the global population participates.

  • To fully leverage human capital and problem-solving ability, we need to involve the “have-not mind” which represents hundreds of millions of people currently left out.

  • The internet has expanded access to education by making course materials, textbooks, lectures, and other resources freely available online through open courseware initiatives like MIT OpenCourseWare and Rice University’s OpenStax.

  • Sites like Khan Academy have created viral, low-cost ways to disseminate education, reaching hundreds of thousands of students worldwide. This maximizes the potential of the curious by giving anyone online access to world-class education resources.

  • While knowledge is now more accessible, getting online access to all remains a challenge, particularly in impoverished areas. Initiatives like One Laptop Per Child aim to place low-cost computers in the hands of children worldwide to further expand educational opportunities.

  • Millions of low-cost laptops with free educational resources have been distributed to help empower self-learning, particularly among impoverished children. This could help unlock more human problem-solving potential on a global scale through increased access to education.

  • While not everyone will take advantage of these opportunities, for the first time in history self-education is broadly available via the Internet. This has implications for social mobility by allowing people’s knowledge and skills, rather than birth circumstances, to determine their potential.

  • More needs to be done to fully capitalize on this, such as encouraging open access to academic works and tapping into “crowd-sourcing” to solve intractable problems. The Internet optimizes our ability to utilize human capital on a global scale.

  • However, existential threats to society may simply take new forms rather than being eliminated. The Internet does not guarantee solutions to problems societies cannot otherwise address. Continued innovation will be needed to adapt to unforeseen future challenges.

  • A key new threat is the Internet itself becoming incapacitated, such as through cyber warfare targeting infrastructure like undersea cables, which the majority of global Internet traffic relies on. Ensuring resilience of the online environment remains crucial.

The passage discusses the need for a “seed vault for the net” - a backup system to preserve the knowledge underlying the internet in the event of a global crisis that disrupts internet infrastructure. It draws an analogy to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, which stores backup seed samples as insurance against events that could wipe out global food supplies.

The proposed “seed vault for the net” would involve storing simple instructions, burned onto physical media, for how to generate electricity, build computers, routers, and reconstitute the internet from basic principles. This would help ensure the survival of the most important technology ever invented and the knowledge it contains, even if a nuclear war, solar flare or other catastrophe collapsed the existing internet networks.

The passage argues we have a responsibility as the generation that built the internet to protect it for the future. It aims to spark consideration of backup systems to safeguard the vast human knowledge shared and built upon via the internet, ensuring it could be rebuilt even after a global crisis. In summary, it makes the case for a physical archive of the basic information needed to restart internet infrastructure as a form of critical infrastructure protection.

Here is a summary of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust:

  • Remembrance of Things Past is a seven volume novel by Marcel Proust considered one of the most influential works of 20th century literature.

  • The novel explores themes of involuntary memory, time, and loss through the eyes of the narrator as he reflects on his life and relationships that were meaningful to him.

  • The episodes of involuntary memory triggered by sensory experiences like smell, taste, and touch allow the narrator to reconnect with lost feelings from the past.

  • The narrator belongs to a wealthy bourgeois family in western France but through his recollections, the novel provides insights into French aristocratic society in the late 19th century.

  • The madeleine episode in the first volume is famous as it illustrates Proust’s idea that chance experiences can unlock rich treasures of forgotten memories.

  • Proust uses stream-of-consciousness writing style and long, intricate sentences to delve deep into the inner experiences and perceptions of the narrator and characters.

  • The novel explores major themes like the essence of time, the difference between habit and attentive observation, and the futility of human pursuits through the lenses of memory, art, and philosophy.

Here are summaries of the selected sources:

Matthews, W. (2010). U.S. Legislators Debate Internet ‘Kill Switch’ for President. Defense News, 26 October 2010.

  • This article discusses a debate in the U.S. among legislators about whether the president should have the authority to shutdown the internet in times of crisis, through an “internet kill switch.” Both sides argue over the necessity and implications of such a power.

Pirjola, R. (2007). Space weather effects on power grids. In Space Weather – Physics and Effects. Heidelberg/New York: Springer Praxis Books. 269–288.

  • This chapter examines the impacts of space weather such as solar storms on power grids. It discusses phenomena such as geomagnetically induced currents that can threaten electricity transmission infrastructure and cause blackouts.

Schneier, B. (2010). Three Reasons to Kill the Internet Kill Switch Idea. AOL News, 9 July 2010.

  • This opinion piece argues against giving the president an “internet kill switch” and provides three reasons for why that idea should be rejected. It cites concerns about censorship, cyber warfare, and disproportionate impact on civilians.

The sources discuss debates around threats to networks like the internet from either man-made controls such as a proposed “kill switch” or natural phenomena like space weather and solar storms. They represent differing perspectives for and against enhanced centralized authority over internet infrastructure and operations during national crises.

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About Matheus Puppe